Raise your hand if you predicted Sean Rodriguez would be leading the Rays in home runs through the first two months of the season.
Didn't think so.
Neither did manager Joe Maddon.
"Of course, I'd be surprised," he said.
But here is Rodriguez entering tonight's game against the Red Sox topping Tampa Bay with six homers in 78 at-bats, surpassing his total from last year (five). Starting primarily against left-handers, and some righties, Rodriguez is the only player in baseball to lead his team in home runs with fewer than 100 at-bats; by comparison, Evan Longoria has five in 212 at-bats. Rodriguez has 20 RBIs, and 13 of his 18 hits have gone for extra bases.
"He's been outstanding," Maddon said. "He's growing up as a major-league baseball player. He's hitting the ball hard, you can put him defensively anywhere and he plays great defense. He's always involved, always engaged. I'm really happy for him."
Valued for his defensive versatility — and can-do-anything attitude — Rodriguez has worked hard to fine-tune his ability at the plate. But Maddon says Rodriguez, batting .244, is a more mature hitter.
"He believes in himself right now," coach Jamie Nelson said. "He's going through a period where he's very confident. He knows that he's going to hit the ball hard each time when he gets to the box, that's half the battle. I think he's feeling it right now, and when he's getting the opportunity and getting the pitch, he's doing some damage."
Rodriguez, 29, deflected most of the credit to Nelson and hitting coach Derek Shelton, who have consistently worked with him the past two years on the mechanical and mental side. Before, if he went through a slump, he'd search for ways to tinker. Now, he's sticking with his same approach, and "trusting the preparation," and not overthinking at the plate.
"A thinking mind is a heavy bat," Nelson said.
Just as important, Rodriguez has grown more comfortable in his role, which has evolved since he was the player to be named later in the 2009 Scott Kazmir trade to the Angels.
"I was the throw-in guy," Rodriguez said, smiling.
The Rays threw him everywhere in his first two seasons, starting at seven spots in 2010 and all four infield positions in 2011. Rodriguez was the opening day shortstop in 2012 but hit just .213, so more utility role.
Rodriguez believes that, given the chance, he could succeed as an everyday player: "I absolutely have no doubt."
But he's not worrying about that now, his main focus doing anything to help the team win, whether that's a bunt, steal, or a pinch-hit, three-run homer.
"I'm a believer in the fact if you play for 'we' over 'me,' it's going to be a lot more fun for you," he said.
Maddon compares Rodriguez favorably to former Yankee utilityman Randy Velarde, who eventually worked his way into a starting role with the Angels.
"It's going to be about opportunity for him if he ever gets an opportunity to be that everyday guy," Maddon said. "And if he does not, he still has a long career ahead of him doing what he's doing. The versatility, the power, speed, arm, he does so many things, he's going to always be desirable, always."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]