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Tampa Bay Rays' Matt Joyce earning more playing time, All-Star attention

Someday, all of this will be his. The grass beneath him. The fence behind him. The view in front of him. From the foul line to the power alley, from the warning track to the infield dirt.

Someday, and it cannot come soon enough, the deed will be turned over, and he will gain full ownership of the precious plot of land called rightfield.

Someday, Matt Joyce will no longer be the rightfielder most of the time. Some day, he will be the rightfielder all of the time.

With every game, with every hit, Joyce comes closer to staking his claim. Soon, he will force manager Joe Maddon to throw away his caution and to turn him loose. Soon, it will not matter if the opposing pitcher throws with his left arm, his right arm or drop-kicks the ball toward the plate. Eventually, the Rays have to realize they are closer to potent with Joyce in the lineup every day.

And who knows? Shortly after that, perhaps the voters will realize the All-Star Game is played on a day, too.

It is a difficult thing to hit a baseball. It is a harder thing to hit it better than anyone in the American League. For Joyce, this fight toward everyday acceptance has been hardest of all.

He is second in the American League in hitting with a .350 average, and still, there are days when he bats seventh and days when he does not bat at all. He is one of the most potent bats in a lineup that does not hit particularly well, and still, there are times Maddon looks at the matchup between Joyce and an opposing left-hander and chooses other alternatives. More and more, that becomes harder to do.

"He is a lot closer to being an everyday player than he was," Maddon said. "Last year at this time, I wasn't as comfortable with him against a left-handed pitcher. But he's at least 75 percent better against lefties than he was last year."

Last year, there were times when Joyce seemed overmatched against lefties. He hit only .080, and he didn't have a home run against a left-hander, and his pitch selection was awful. The Tampa native showed flashes of what he could do against right-handers, but against lefties, there were too many times he was so eager to get a hit that he would flail away at breaking pitches low and outside. Fans still clamored for him to get more time, but really, Joyce didn't give them much of an argument.

This year, at age 26, it has been impossible to ignore Joyce. His overall average is 115 points fatter than a year ago. Even against lefties, he is hitting .242 with three home runs. No, he still isn't the same hitter as he is against righties, but in this lineup, .242 with power has some sparkle to it.

In baseball, one of the hardest things to do is to change minds. For Joyce, the key this year has been a more patient, more selective approach. The result? Sometimes, you might swear you could hear the ball whimper on its way to the plate.

"I don't think this is a fluke," Maddon said. "His number is a little high right now, but I don't think this is a fluke."

That said, Maddon has some advice for Joyce.

"Ride the wave," he said. "It's not going to last forever. He's absolutely going to come down at some point. But if he continues to swing at strikes and lay off bad pitches, it's going to stay this way for a while.

"When a guy is hitting like this, everything is slower. It seems like you have more time, like there are four guys playing on defense. When you drive to work, you hit all the lights."

Ah, but on the other side of the hot streak, when baseball imposes its will on Joyce the way it does on everyone from time to time, what kind of player will the Rays be left with?

"This year, he's going to be considered an All-Star caliber player," Maddon said. "No question. If he's able to control his strike zone, he's got a wonderful swing. Great hands. He has one of those tension-free swings where the ball jumps off the bat.

"He's got the power. You're going to see 20-plus home runs. You're going to see exceptional defense. He's going to be a teetering All-Star caliber player every year."

Maybe. First, it seems, the voters have to learn a little more about him.

It was a little puzzling this week when the first All-Star results were released and Joyce was 20th. There were 15 outfielders listed, and 14 of them were hitting less than .300. Eight were hitting lower than .250. Six of them were hitting lower than .235.

And no Joyce.

There is a peculiar nature to All-Star voting, of course. Familiar names always have the advantage, along with players who work in cities where big crowds stuff the ballot box. It can be difficult for a guy having his first big year to break through. Still, when the leading hitter in the league doesn't crack the top 15, it's a little odd. Put it this way: There were two Rays outfielders — B.J. Upton and Sam Fuld — who received more votes than Joyce. Carl Crawford, hitting .246, was on the list. J.D. Drew, hitting .228, was on that list. Nick Swisher, hitting .213, was on that list.

Perhaps Joyce will make the game yet. For now, his only choice is patience. Just like always.

That, and to keep mashing the ball until Maddon writes your name in ink.

Tampa Bay Rays' Matt Joyce earning more playing time, All-Star attention 06/04/11 [Last modified: Sunday, June 5, 2011 1:36pm]
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