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Tampa Bay Rays plan to sprint hard from start to finish

SARASOTA — Matt Joyce stealing second base Thursday in an exhibition may not have turned many heads in the stands.

But to manager Joe Maddon, it was a "big moment" in the new outfielder learning to play the "Ray Way" on the basepaths, where players are encouraged to err on the side of aggressiveness, take the extra base and put pressure on the defense.

Maddon said he wants the Rays to be the best baserunning team in baseball, and that means more than just stealing bases, though Tampa Bay led the majors last season (142) and set a postseason record (24). That means going from first to third on a single, beating out potential double play balls and advancing on a passed ball or error.

And while some of those hustle plays may not show up in the box score, Maddon believes they played a significant role in some wins last season, especially the one-run games, where the Rays had a 29-18 record.

So it's no surprise that five of the majors' top seven clubs in stolen bases made the 2008 playoffs, including the World Series teams.

"I think it can impact your defense, it can impact your pitching," Maddon said. "If your pitchers know the other team is willing to do those things, there's a lot more preparation that goes into it, a lot more splitting of concentration as the game is in progress. If you run hard to first base, the routine ground ball to any infielder becomes a little bit more uncomfortable. If they know you're always going to be looking to take an extra base, they may rush.

"All those things factor into those one-run games, and taking the extra base is a big component."

Maddon has had the philosophy since his years in the Angels' minor-league system, and with a team built on speed at the top and bottom of the order — from B.J. Upton, Carl Crawford to Jason Bartlett and Akinori Iwamura — the Rays have bought in.

"I think baserunning changed a couple games for us last year," said Upton, who had a team-high 44 steals. "I definitely feel like we have one of the fastest teams in the league, so I don't think there's any reason we can't be the best baserunning team."

Maddon said the Rays have taken some chances stealing during the spring where they typically wouldn't in the regular season — against different pitchers who are quick to the plate, for example — to "have guys try to find out what their ceiling actually is." The Rays lead the majors in steals this spring with 38 (through Saturday).

Bartlett said players love the style of play and that it can have numerous impacts. "I think it pumps up the team," he said. "If you get a good first-to-third and barely beat a throw, or take an extra base on just a bobble in the outfield, that sparks a club."

Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston and the Yankees' Joe Girardi have talked this spring about how their teams have to be aware of the Rays' athleticism and aggressiveness.

"Your pitching staff and infielders always have to be ready," Girardi said. "When you're able to do that, it changes the way you play the game a little bit. They're very aggressive on the basepaths, they've got great team speed, and it shows up in their defense as well."

Maddon will defend any player who gets thrown out while playing the ''Ray Way."

"I don't ever want our guys to be concerned about making a physical mistake — ever. Ever," Maddon said. "We take our chances, we did all the way until the last game of last season and we're going to do the same thing again this year based on how we work, what we believe in."

Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@sptimes.com.

FAST FACTS

By the numbers

The Rays preach aggressiveness on the basepaths. It produced some big numbers last season:

24 Postseason steals, a major-league record

115 Infield
hits

74 percent success rate for Rays in steals

142 Steals, most in the majors

Tampa Bay Rays plan to sprint hard from start to finish 03/29/09 [Last modified: Monday, March 30, 2009 7:40am]
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