ST. PETERSBURG — Replacing four-time All-Star LF Carl Crawford was going to be hard enough for the Rays, with their first plan to make Johnny Damon the primary leftfielder and use Manny Ramirez on occasion.
It became even more difficult — "almost impossible," manager Joe Maddon said — when Ramirez "retired" eight days into the season and Damon was deemed more fit for the DH role.
But five months and six players later, the Rays believe they have covered the hole rather well.
"For as difficult as it may have seemed in advance, I think we've done pretty good with it actually," Maddon said. "We weren't as void of ability out there as I thought we may be, or comparatively speaking with what Carl had done."
The Rays have done it in shifts, with Sam Fuld (67 starts) providing most of the early coverage, Justin Ruggiano (20) getting hot for a few weeks and rookie Desmond Jennings (34) taking over in late July. Damon (11), Matt Joyce (eight) and rookie Brandon Guyer (two) have also filled in.
Collectively, Rays leftfielders have hit .252 in 142 games, with 19 homers, 60 RBIs, 34 steals and a .750 on-base plus slugging percentage. In 113 games for the Red Sox (with a stint on the DL), Crawford has hit .250 with 11 homers, 53 RBIs, 17 steals and a .686 OPS.
Maddon said the key was Fuld's fast start, which saw him hitting .350 four weeks into the season and filling a highlight show with his leaping catches.
"We didn't know exactly what we had in Sam at that particular juncture," Maddon said. "It's not like we had an absolute Plan B. Sam turned into a nice Plan B, especially at the beginning of the year. … So we kind of got lucky with the fact that Sam did as good as he did."
After Fuld leveled off, and Ruggiano had a couple of good weeks, Jennings provided stellar play, hitting .302 with nine homers, 21 RBIs, 15 steals and a .936 OPS.
"In advance of those three guys doing well this year, it seemed almost impossible," Maddon said. "But I think what Sam did early on and particularly what Desmond is doing now, it makes the adjustment a little bit easier for us."
PITCHING IN: RHP Wade Davis is eager to face the Sox tonight, having failed to beat them in three previous attempts, with an 11.12 ERA in the process, and unhappy about being bumped from a scheduled August start.
"It's a good opportunity to face them and get a win," he said.
The challenge comes at a good time, Davis said: "I feel great. I feel the best I have all year right now. Good in-between days, good recovery. I've been stronger and recovering faster. I feel really good about everything."
Davis is 9-8 with a 4.50 ERA overall, though better recently. In his past six starts, he is 1-1 with a 4.17 ERA and the Rays have won five of the games.
"I've been better at (using) different pitches as far as executing them and understanding each pitch a little better instead of throwing them as hard as I can," he said.
Makeup date: The Rays will play a day-night doubleheader at the Yankees on Sept. 21 to make up an Aug. 14 rainout.
MINOR MATTERS: Durham RHP Chris Archer struck out a Triple-A career-high 11 but allowed four runs in the first two innings, and five runs and seven hits in 5⅔ innings overall, as the Bulls lost 8-3 to Columbus (Indians) to fall into an 0-2 hole in the best-of-five International League playoff series. Game 3 is tonight in Columbus, with LHP Alex Torres starting for the Bulls. … Class A Bowling Green opened its best-of-three Midwest League playoff series with a 6-3 loss at Fort Wayne (Padres). RHP George Jensen took the loss, allowing three runs on eight hits in five innings. RHP Victor Mateo is scheduled to start Game 2 tonight at home.
MISCELLANY: Maddon said C Jose Lobaton is expected to be ready tonight, having left Tuesday's game after tweaking his left knee. … 2B/RF Ben Zobrist joined Milwaukee's Ryan Braun as the only players with 50 homers, 50 steals and 100 doubles over the past three seasons.