Remember Tampa Bay Rays catcher Kelly Shoppach for his performance in Game 1 of 2011 AL Division Series

ARLINGTON, Texas

Your mind was likely made up long ago. The strikeouts have been too frequent and the highlights too rare to expect it any other way.

So if Kelly Shoppach parts ways with the Rays this winter — and that's a real possibility — the mood likely will involve more relief than regret around Tampa Bay.

Just do Shoppach this one favor. Or maybe do it for yourself:

Remember the afternoon when he stood taller than ever before. The game when his bat was magic and his work behind the plate was flawless.

Remember the playoff game when Shoppach did everything possible to erase the memories of last year's postseason disappointment.

"I'm happy for him, I really am," said hitting coach Derek Shelton, who has been with Shoppach since their days together in Cleveland.

"A big situation like this and look at what he does. The work he did with Matt Moore today and the fact he comes into a playoff game and comes into his hometown, has this kind of day? Pretty cool."

Shoppach had two huge home runs, a single, five RBIs and three runs scored in Tampa Bay's 9-0 whipping of the Rangers on Friday.

He guided the 22-year-old Moore through an impressive seven-inning effort, and maybe he rid himself of a little of the bad taste of last season's playoff series against Texas.

You might recall that disappointment. It's hard not to, because Shoppach could hardly have been worse. He was 0-for-9 with three strikeouts, allowed five stolen bases in three games and committed an error in the 2010 American League Division Series loss.

Shoppach swears he didn't lose any sleep over that during the offseason. Instead, he found a new trainer to help improve his strength and thought about coming back stronger in 2011 instead of fretting over 2010.

"I don't want to take it too seriously. I think y'all do. You really do. This is a fun game. Why can't we have fun playing it," Shoppach, 31, said. "You leave it here at the yard. I'm going to go home, play with my kids, have some barbecue. That's what we do.

"It's my job, and I understand the severity of my actions here, but I also have a great family at home, and they're my backbone."

Even so, Shoppach is aware that his bat has not lived up to expectations since he signed with the Rays before the start of the 2010 season.

His batting average has been rolling downhill for three seasons. Shoppach has gone from .261 to .214 to .196 to .176. Among players with at least 400 plate appearances, his .185 average the past two seasons is the fourth worst in the majors.

Shoppach has been a pretty good hitter against left-handed pitching — actually, better than league average. The problem is he has been atrocious against right-handers. He hit .114 against them in 2010 and followed that by hitting .115 this season.

What's key, however, is he has not allowed it to affect his defense. Shoppach was not real impressive behind the plate last season, but he says that was due more to injuries.

This year he has been among the best defensive catchers in the game. He has handled a young pitching staff with a deft touch and has been a huge asset taking away the stolen base from opponents.

Of catchers who started at least 70 games this season, none threw out a higher rate of baserunners than Shoppach, who was at 40.9 percent. That goes for the National League, too.

"He's a guy with a lot of pride," Shelton said. "I was with him when he had the big year in '08 when he led all catchers in home runs. He takes a lot of pride in his offense, and the fact he hasn't produced weighs on him. It weighs on him because he cares a lot, and he wants to win. As much as anybody I've been around in the game, he cares about winning.

"He doesn't care about the individual stuff, only in the sense that it might impact how much we're winning."

From that standpoint, Shoppach has shown up with his bat when the Rays have needed him most. He has hit seven home runs in his past 19 starts.

The Rays tried giving his job away a couple of months ago to rookie Jose Lobaton, but their confidence in Shoppach has obviously grown in the past few weeks. He has been back in the lineup more often, and he hit in the No. 6 spot Friday for the first time in two months.

The Rays might not pick up his $3.2 million option for next year, but they might consider re-signing him for a lower salary.

"He's never talked about his hitting at all. He's handled it very well," said centerfielder B.J. Upton, who has the locker next to Shoppach. "He's always upbeat in the clubhouse; he doesn't wear it on his shoulders. He comes to the park every day in a good mood, and he's ready to play.

"He deserves a game like this because he's been there for us."

One afternoon does not change the past two years, but it does leave you with another perspective. It helps you recall the good things Shoppach has done.

When the time comes, remember that.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Remember Tampa Bay Rays catcher Kelly Shoppach for his performance in Game 1 of 2011 AL Division Series 10/01/11 [Last modified: Saturday, October 1, 2011 12:48am]

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