DUNEDIN — The Rays are already one of the more aggressive baserunning teams in baseball. Thanks to an athletic lineup, and a manager who tries to take advantage of that, they led the majors last season with 194 steals.
But manager Joe Maddon has taken the reins off even more this spring, putting an emphasis on getting better at two key base-running plays: advancing from first to third and scoring from second. He doesn't care if players are thrown out trying to take the extra base in camp, as long as, by testing their limits now, they learn how to be smarter come opening day.
There are plenty of subtle factors in improving, from better secondary leads to knowing the outfielders' positioning and arm strength. But by taking an extra base, the Rays can put pressure on defenses, make it easier to manufacture runs and improve their record in close games. Tampa Bay was 20-25 in one-run games last year.
"Baseball games oftentimes come down to one run and, in a big picture sense, the season can often come down to one run or one game," rightfielder Gabe Kapler said. "So … it's invaluable to have a guy advance an extra base when he can."
To do so takes a blend of aggressiveness and awareness. It requires a quality secondary lead — the couple of extra shuffles players take toward the next base when the pitcher winds up to throw. Runners have to know how far they can go without getting picked off, and third base coach Tom Foley said they should be leaning on their right leg, so "if there's a base hit, you're gone."
The Rays led the majors last season in runners on third base with less than two outs (345 times), said bench coach Dave Martinez, who set the goal before the year. "There's so many more ways you can score from third than from second. It's huge."
In advancing from first to third on a single to rightfield, Foley said, the common rule is, "If it's a ground ball, we're going to go; if it's a line drive, they're going to have to make up their mind."
Kapler said knowing where the outfielders are, how they charge the ball and how well they throw can play a role. "Oftentimes, this game is such a game of momentum that if you see an outfielder who doesn't seem to be getting good jumps on the ball, he might not be on his rhythm for the day," he said. "And that's a good guy to take a chance on."
In terms of scoring from second, Maddon said the Rays weren't as good at that last season. The reasons varied, from a runner misreading whether a blooper would fall in, to Foley saying he had a "bad send."
On those plays, Foley said, some of the basic tenets are still the same, from a good secondary lead to knowing the outfielders. He's there to help the baserunners, telling them if an infielder is going to cover on a pickoff throw, yelling "take another step" or "careful" or "shut it down."
Foley said they're trying to get runners to anticipate hitters making contact more, especially with two strikes, and get better reads on balls in the dirt.
Maddon said players have bought in and shown a "tremendous awareness" in camp, understanding how important the little things on the bases are.
"That's how you beat these better teams on a consistent basis," Maddon said. "Otherwise, you lose those one or two or three close games, and all of a sudden you are 10 games behind because you haven't taken care of the little things right."
Besides putting themselves in better position to score runs, shortstop Jason Bartlett said, the threat of taking an extra base can have added benefits.
"The outfielders know you can do it, so you're going to put more pressure on them," Bartlett said. "And that could lead to an error. It's all about putting pressure on the defense. When you do that, good things will happen."
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.