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Tampa Bay Rays' Matt Joyce feeling more comfortable with move to middle of lineup

ST. PETERSBURG — OF Matt Joyce knows that baseball is a game of "ups and downs."

He has certainly seen both in his All-Star season, from his red-hot start when he peaked at .377 to watching his batting average dip back to .273.

But Joyce appears to be getting into a comfort zone recently, partly a product of getting better pitches while up in the order and accepting his walks with a solid approach.

Joyce, who had a sacrifice fly and solo homer Sunday — his first in his past 12 games — is batting .355 with seven extra-base hits over his past 14 games.

"I definitely feel a lot better," Joyce said.

Manager Joe Maddon said he has wanted to move Joyce up in the lineup so that he could get more pitches to hit than he saw from the seven hole, and he hit cleanup Sunday.

"I feel like there's definitely more opportunities with runners on base," Joyce said. "I definitely feel comfortable there, I like hitting in the middle of the order. But again, he's the manager and he makes the decisions."

Maddon feels Joyce, who is batting .282, is showing better pitch selection, and it has shown with five walks of his 44 this season in the past five games.

"He looks better," Maddon said. "We'll see where it takes us. For him to finish strong, he has a shot to bring his batting average up to a pretty solid number by the end of the year. It is solid, but it could be really good by the end of the season if we get him hot again."

LINING UP: Ben Zobrist missed his second straight game due to a nagging neck injury. But Maddon said Zobrist is feeling better, and he hopes he'll be close to 100 percent today and back in the lineup against the Rangers.

CF B.J. Upton was out of the lineup after racking up five RBIs in Saturday's win. Maddon said it was a planned day off, based upon this week's schedule, and he wanted to stick with it "regardless of what he had done (Saturday)."

PRICE CHECK: RHP James Shields, who has arguably one of the best changeups in the game, said he and LHP David Price have been working hard over the past month on Price's changeup, and it has paid off big-time.

Price said he finally found a grip he likes, best described as a modified circle change, and has the confidence to throw it more often. "I got that feel for it right now, that's what I've been looking for about 26 years," he quipped.

Price said his start in Toronto, when he struck out a club-record 14, showed him how much better he can be with the addition of the pitch. In previous seasons, Price threw a changeup "maybe three-four times a month." Against the Blue Jays, he threw about 20.

"I was using the inside part of the plate very well with my two-seam (fastball) and now I'm able to throw my changeup away, and they didn't have a whole lot of good swings on it," he said.

Shields said the two would just tinker with the pitch while playing catch.

Said Shields: "He's got one of the most electric arms in the big leagues, and I think by him adding his changeup and him throwing his cut fastball is really making him a dynamic pitcher. He's kind of stepped up his game to a whole other level."

HOT CORNER: Though 3B Evan Longoria racked up three errors in a series for the first time in his career, and has four in his past six games, Maddon isn't concerned about the two-time Gold Glover.

Maddon said that Longoria has been good on plays where he comes in and goes to his left, as he showed in Sunday's game. It's the balls that are deep at third where Maddon says he's "maybe not getting his feet working well enough to make the throw."

"Overall, I'll take it," Maddon said of Longoria's defense. "That just seems to be the spot that is the more difficult throw for him this year."

Tampa Bay Rays' Matt Joyce feeling more comfortable with move to middle of lineup 09/04/11 [Last modified: Sunday, September 4, 2011 7:59pm]
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