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Shelton: Rays' Luke Scott aims higher

PORT CHARLOTTE

Different guy, Luke Scott.

Consider Monday morning, for instance. Most of the other Rays were wearing their baseball gear by the time Scott arrived. As for Scott, he was wearing sunglasses, a floppy camouflage hat and those Chester A. Arthur mutton chops of his. As you might expect after two injury-filled seasons, Scott showed up head in hands.

Only, uh, it wasn't his head.

Scott bounced through the clubhouse carrying a large boar's head — the first one he killed with a spear, he would later explain. The eyes stared ahead blankly, and the tusks curled around the snout. Scott thought it would be a wonderful attachment to the side of his locker.

Soon, he would tell the story, again, about the clacking sound the boar made just before it threatened to charge. To emphasize, Scott thrust his lower jaw forward and clacked himself.

Different guy, Luke Scott.

At least, the Rays hope so.

Call it the Return of the Killer. Scott, slayer of boar and deer and fastballs, is healthy again. If he can stay that way, perhaps Scott can once again be the hitter the Rays thought they had signed a year ago.

You remember. When the Rays signed Scott last year, they envisioned him as an impact hitter, a batter capable of hitting 30 into the seats and providing protection for Evan Longoria.

It didn't happen that way. Scott struggled to overcome shoulder surgery, and he played in only 96 games with only 334 at bats. He hit only .149 against lefties with only two home runs.

So why should you believe that, at 34, this year will be different?

"I don't like to makes excuses, but I don't avoid reality, either," Scott said. "I was coming off of surgery where they put seven anchors in my shoulder. They basically tied my labrum back and drilled them right back into my bone structure.

"It's like trying to run a high-powered performance race car with bald tires. You have the engine and the power output to do it, but you're not going to be as efficient."

That said, a lot of players in spring training talk about getting healthy. A lot of them are unable to when they reach their mid 30s. It is fair to say there is skepticism about Scott.

"That's okay," Scott said. "I'm not a lot of people. I take care of my body better than the average person. I'm very disciplined. I take it serious."

No one questions that. Over his career, Scott has lived in the headlines, and he has embraced some controversies. But the guy likes hitting a baseball. If you believe he can stay healthy, he can still have an impact on a Rays lineup that can use all it can get.

"He can change the whole dynamic of our lineup," says hitting coach Derek Shelton.

"He can help us big-time," says manager Joe Maddon. "He never really gained full health last season. I really think he's ripe for a very good season.

"If he's going right, he's a guy who could sit behind (Longoria) in the batting order and make them respect pitching to Longo. He's capable of 20-plus home runs, 75-plus RBIs. He's strong, man. He uses both sides of the field. The ball comes off his bat really hot."

There was a time all of baseball thought that about Scott. From 2008-10, he averaged 25 home runs and 71 RBIs for the Orioles. The Rays could have used that kind of season from him last year.

"If Longo and I are healthy, and if Carlos (Peña) has a typical season for him, we win 110 games last year," Scott said. "We walk to the playoffs. It's a bunt."

Instead, it was an irritating, frustrating season for Scott. Even when he did play, Maddon says, Scott began to chase balls out of the strike zone in his efforts to make something happen. A couple of times, Scott admits, he took it out by banging a clubhouse trash can with his bat. Another year like that, and the trash can might be mounted over his locker, too.

"It was extremely difficult," Scott said. "Humbling? Absolutely. It's hard when you have this drive and this passion. At the same time, you're handcuffed. Every man wants to see that what he puts his hands to do produces good fruit. When you do everything you can and don't see that fruit, it leaves an emptiness. It's like there is a piece of you missing inside of you.

"The way things happened for me was a punch in the stomach. We had the best pitching staff of all time. I wore it hard when we would lose games that I could have an impact on. I took it personal. I really did."

These days, things are better. Scott has almost doubled his long-toss distance. The Rays are no longer monitoring his every swing. Oh, and there is this: Someone should alert the animals, because Scott can finally pull back his bow.

Different guy, Luke Scott.

Different year, too.

This time, he's hunting pitchers.

Listen to Gary Shelton weekdays from 9 a.m. until noon on 98.7-FM the Fan.

Shelton: Rays' Luke Scott aims higher 02/18/13 [Last modified: Monday, February 18, 2013 10:29pm]
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