FORT MYERS — As Elliot Johnson's ball cleared the centerfield wall of Hammond Stadium in the third inning Monday, the Rays finally had something to smile about.
With the end quickly approaching to what overall has been a miserable spring training, given the long list of injuries and poor results, a stark lack of offense has been the primary cause for concern.
Thus when Johnson's homer, coming an inning after Ben Zobrist's grand slam, gave them a 7-1 lead on the way to a spring-high 10 runs and 14 hits and their seventh win in 24 tries, they gathered in the dugout for good reason.
"It was funny," Zobrist said. "We were joking around on the bench, we're like, 'Guys, this is what it actually feels like to have a lead. This is fun baseball right here.' … We had a good time with it."
Their hope, of course, is that it's the start of something. That after hitting major-league lows of .222 and nine home runs (and not two in a game until Monday), after scoring only 67 runs, and three or fewer 15 times, in the first 23 games, that they are coming alive just in time, with the season opener against the Yankees just 10 days away.
"It's totally ticking right now," manager Joe Maddon said. "I really want to see a better push right now, in regard to playing a better game of baseball in getting ready for the season. We have played just an okay game of baseball to this point. I want it to be better for the last 10 (spring) games. I think that's important for us."
It's even more important given their emphasis on a good start to the season in the face of a brutal April schedule has them playing 16 of their first 22 games against the Yankees, Tigers, Red Sox, Angels and Rangers.
"It's not realistic," Maddon said, "to think that you're going to be able to turn on the switch on opening day and all of a sudden become this good team whereas you have not played well prior to that, or played together."
The injuries are certainly part of the issue, as they have yet to have their projected starting team on the field together, much less settle on a batting order, with B.J. Upton, Desmond Jennings and Reid Brignac still sidelined. Evan Longoria, Carlos Peña, Luke Scott, Sean Rodriguez and Sam Fuld have also missed time for various reasons.
Maddon said there is no other obvious explanation for their lack of offense, that the work by hitting coach Derek Shelton and the players has been great, and they should have enough time to get fully ready. (And the smart alecks would say they are in regular-season form.)
Longoria, hitting .192 with two extra-base hits since recovering from his bruised right hand, said they can use all the prep time remaining.
"I'm glad we have another week, let's just put it that way," he said. "At some point, you do need to experience some success. …
"Confidence goes a long way, so you want to start feeling like you're ready to go out and play a regular season. I haven't really worried about the wins and losses, but you'd like to see guys start playing well together right now."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]