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Tampa Bay Rays offense suddenly clicking in playoffs

ST. PETERSBURG — Johnny Damon approached Matt Joyce before Friday's AL Division Series opener in Texas with a few words of somewhat simple advice.

They were in the postseason now, Damon said, and in order to succeed the Rays were going to have to do more with their bats.

"We need power in the lineup," Damon said. "You need to hit homers in the playoffs."

Damon spread the message to a few others around the clubhouse, and it apparently got across. In the first two ALDS games, the Rays — including Damon and Joyce — have hit five, and scored 15 runs.

And as they head into Game 3 against the Rangers this afternoon at Tropicana Field, that's the latest indication of improvement in an offense that for most of six months was slotted somewhere between impotent and inconsistent.

"That's awesome," said starter David Price. "You know, it's the right time for it. If they want to get hot right now, obviously that's what we need. And that's the team that's going to probably go out there and win a championship, is the team that's the hottest in the month of October.

"So if we can continue to swing the bats the way we're swinging right now, and if our pitchers can pitch the way we have pitched pretty much all year, we'll be all right."

Damon's words of advice were the latest of a series of small maneuvers over the past few weeks that seem to have made a difference, though there is no prevailing explanation.

Some are as nuanced as individual hitters making better decisions on which pitches to take, leading to improved at-bats. Others were more obvious, such as moving B.J. Upton up to second in the batting order, which had a noticeable impact on his performance as well as Evan Longoria behind him.

The signs of progress have been building. The Rays have scored 23 runs in their past three games, something they'd done only four times all season. They've hit 17 home runs over their past seven games, which they hadn't done since September 2010. They averaged 4.89 runs a game in September, an increase of more than half a run over the previous five months.

Hitting coach Derek Shelton joked that there is no "logical answer," but then suggested one that made a lot of sense: the improvement in the quality of at-bats — illustrated by the patience, determination and selectivity of the hitters on a pitch-by-pitch basis.

The first two games against the Rangers, he said, were filled with prime examples, such as Kelly Shoppach battling through eight pitches for a bases-loaded walk to put the Rays ahead in Game 2 on Saturday.

"I can honestly tell you the consistency of our at-bats had been really good, especially these first two games of the playoffs," Shelton said. "I thought we've done a real good job with our approach one through nine, and stayed with it throughout the game and adjusted with it throughout the game."

It helps that Upton and Longoria, in the Nos. 2 and 3 spots, are both sizzling, and feeding off each other. "I think it started with B.J. and Longo," manager Joe Maddon said. "Those two guys have really been on top of their games."

Also, that the Rays hitters understand that they have to do their part, whether it's hustling to first on ground balls such as Damon or driving the ball as Joyce has been, lest their typically tremendous pitching and dazzling defense go to waste. That was the case in last year's ALDS, when they scored only 13 runs in the five-game loss to the Rangers.

They certainly didn't want to see that unfold the same way again.

"I think it was understood coming into the series against a club like Texas, who is an offensive ballclub, that we were going to need to score some runs," Longoria said. "Our pitching staff is good, but the reality of it is that those guys score runs over there. When we have a game like Matt (Moore) pitched the first game (a 9-0 Tampa Bay win), that's a welcome change, but is that really going to happen against them every night? Probably not.

"So we've got to go out there and score some runs, and we knew that coming in."

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com.

Tampa Bay Rays offense suddenly clicking in playoffs 10/02/11 [Last modified: Monday, October 3, 2011 12:15am]
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