ARLINGTON, Texas — The way things were going for rookie catcher John Jaso early in spring training, the thought of him starting a playoff game for the Rays was beyond improbable.
Even by his own wildest imagination.
"Yeah, right," Jaso said Friday, reflecting on that thought. "Hopefully, I'd be starting a playoff game for the (Triple-A Durham) Bulls."
Manager Joe Maddon was admittedly annoyed with Jaso's defensive stance and blocking ability — among other things — and told the catcher there was no chance he'd make the big-league team.
Yet here Jaso is, expected to be behind the plate and batting leadoff today in Game 3 of the AL division series, capping a transformation not many saw coming. The 27-year-old went from a long shot to starting more games at catcher and batting leadoff than any rookie in major-league history.
"It's been totally unexpected," Jaso said. "I guess you never really know what this game holds for you in the future."
The Rays credit Jaso for responding to the wake-up call delivered by Maddon, diligently working at his craft.
"You can't really explain in words what he's done," bullpen coach Bobby Ramos said. "He's made a 360-degree (change). He gives great effort. He's smart. He can hit. He's a great baserunner. We didn't know all those things. He's another guy now."
Maddon said they were aware of Jaso's offensive abilities from his seven seasons in the minors (though just five big-league games entering this year). Jaso worked counts and drew walks. That's what made him so effective as a leadoff hitter against right-handers, leading AL rookies with a .372 on-base percentage and setting a club rookie record with 59 walks.
Jaso said he had never hit leadoff until this season, when he walked into the clubhouse one day and saw his name up top. He'll be the first catcher to hit leadoff in a postseason game since Oakland's Jason Kendall in 2006.
"It's not really something I want to be known for: 'Oh yeah, he's a leadoff-hitting catcher, and that's it,' " he said. "But I enjoy it. It's nice to see that people are really considering me. It's an important spot in this lineup."
Jaso said the chances he has received — starting a team-high 80 games at catcher — helped him build confidence and a sense of belonging, which has reflected in his play. No longer worried about making a mistake and its implications, Jaso goes for it.
Case in point: He set the tone in a win over the Mariners by challenging the arm of All-Star rightfielder Ichiro Suzuki by legging out a leadoff double.
Jaso said he hopes he can be an example to other minor-leaguers: "It can turn around if you're willing to give it a shot."
"To morph into the player he is, leading off (today) under these circumstances and how well he handles it — for those of you who are around him often, you know how calm he is in these different moments," Maddon said. "And I'm impressed with all of that with him. He's a different kind of guy."
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com