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Tampa Bay Rays' power hitting perks up for a night

ST. PETERSBURG — It took about 5.1 seconds for Tampa Bay's offense to get well on Thursday night. Or as long as it took Carl Crawford's 410-foot home run to reach the facade of the rays touch tank beyond the centerfield wall in the first inning.

Just like that, all the at-bats, all the stranded baserunners, all the failed moments of the week were solved. One pitch. One home run. And the Rays had their first lead of the homestand.

"A home run can definitely perk things up," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "The home run is part of our culture around here. And I believe the home runs are going to eventually show up. I believe that. I do."

For all the things the Rays have done well — and the list is long, from starting pitching to defense to running the bases — they have thrived thus far without much of a knockout punch.

The team that has been among the league leaders in home runs for several seasons has struggled to get beyond the warning track in 2010. When Crawford and Evan Longoria connected in a 5-1 victory against the White Sox, it was just the third time in 27 games that the Rays had hit more than one home run in a game.

The Rays have the ability to play small ball. Sean Rodriguez stole a run by tagging up and advancing a base on a foul ball in the fifth, and a Longoria stolen base in the eighth set up another run. But that's not what Tampa Bay does best. This is a team that mashes.

From 2006-09, the Rays did not vary much on their offensive approach. They were always in the American League's top two in strikeout ratio, and they were always in the top five in home run ratio. In other words, they often took an all-or-nothing attitude to the plate.

They are still striking out a lot this season, but their home run production has fallen way off. They are hitting home runs at a slower pace than any season since 2002. And for the first time in years, they are below the league average in home run ratio.

"I don't have a solid answer, but I have looked at that. I have thought about that," Maddon said. "I know that certain guys have been pitched at differently. And I thought cold weather was an elemental part of it. I thought we played in a lot of cold weather early.

"I don't have a solid reason, but it would be nice to get a couple of those popping back in there."

Part of the problem is that no one is on a particularly torrid home run pace, but a handful of players' power have has dipped noticeably from 2009.

At least one was to be expected. Jason Bartlett hit 14 home runs last season, which was way above his career norm. In 2010, he has one. Dioner Navarro is also experiencing a power outage, going from eight homers in '09 to zero through 48 games this season.

But the real issue is in the middle of the order. Based on their numbers from last season, Ben Zobrist and Carlos Peña should have already combined for 22 home runs. They have 11.

In Zobrist's case, it's been a question of adjusting to the new way opponents have been pitching to him after his breakout season in 2009. For Peña, the problem has been swinging at too many bad pitches. Going into Thursday night, pitchers had thrown Peña strikes only 42 percent of the time because they had been able to get him to chase pitches out of the zone. One answer may be moving the slumping Peña up in the lineup so pitchers cannot afford to pitch around him if he's hitting in front of, say, Longoria.

The Rays need home runs. They depend on home runs. This has not been a team in recent seasons that has strung together a lot of rallies. This is not a team that has produced a lot of .300 hitters.

"That's part of the game we'd like to get back because if you're not hitting for high average, you want the home run to pop up," Maddon said. "If you're not hitting for a higher average, you do need to get the ball to go over the wall."

Let's be realistic: The home run is a big play in any box score.

Teams that have hit at least one home run have won 58 percent of their games in the AL this season. Teams that failed to hit a home run have won at a 37 percent pace. So, yeah, I'm going to step out on a limb and say home runs are a fine idea.

The issue with Tampa Bay is that home runs are a big part of how this team was constructed. The Rays have often been willing to sacrifice batting average for sluggers who draw walks and hit homers.

Go back to the pennant-winning season in 2008. The Rays had a team batting average of .260, which was 13th in the AL. But because the Rays were fourth in home runs and second in walks, they were a decent run-scoring team.

"Carl is going to hit his 15 or so. Zobrist is going to get back to 20. Longo will hit his 30, and Peña will hit 30-plus. It's all built in there," Maddon said. "We're going to get there. It's just a matter of time."

Tampa Bay Rays' power hitting perks up for a night 05/27/10 [Last modified: Friday, May 28, 2010 7:06am]
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