ARLINGTON, Texas — No matter how low 1B Carlos Peña's batting average goes — and his .169 average at the start of play Sunday was the lowest of all major-league regulars — manager Joe Maddon has reasons for not taking him out of the lineup.
One is Peña's ability to hit home runs when he does make contact, as he did in the fourth inning Sunday.
The other is what he does with his glove at first base every day.
"It's like with (struggling CF B.J. Upton)," Maddon said. "The defense is so important, it's hard to walk away from that."
Maddon said before Sunday's game he'd think more about whether Peña would benefit from getting at least a few consecutive games off, as seemed, at least initially, to help Upton.
Though the numbers are bad — Peña hit .120 in May (with 37 strikeouts and a .250 slugging percentage) and went into Sunday's game in a 5-for-50 mess — Maddon had been more concerned with what he had been seeing, specifically that Peña was swinging at pitches out of the strike zone and pitches he's not able to hit hard.
Hitting coach Derek Shelton agreed, saying Peña's swing appeared to be in order.
"I don't think it's an overly fundamental thing," Shelton said. "It's a situation where he's swinging at pitches that maybe aren't the right pitches for him, and maybe he's trying to do too much."
Sunday, Peña had two hits (as many as he'd had in his previous nine games) and increased his average to .175, though he did strike out twice.
"Better," Maddon said.
FOUR'S A CROWD: The Rays, Yankees, Blue Jays and Red Sox are within 4½ games of each other, and Maddon expects the four-way race to continue.
The Jays are the surprise entrants, but Maddon saw enough last week — and will this week in a three-game series at the Trop — to feel they are for real.
"Their pitching is very good; they're not going away," Maddon said. "They're getting some really career-type years out of different players offensively. I think they play solid defense. They're not going anywhere."
Though just two weeks ago the Rays had a six-game margin over the Yankees — and 7 over the Jays and 81/2 over the Red Sox — Maddon said he expected the field to be bunched.
"I never thought we would run away with anything," Maddon said. "It was going to have to even out at some point."
CATCHING ON: C Kelly Shoppach again came out of the game after hitting in the seventh, as he did Friday in his first game back after recovering from right knee surgery. He was in some intense action in the fourth, using his left leg to block a hard-charging Vladimir Guerrero off the plate and withstanding the collision.
GOLDEN ROD: Sean Rodriguez is quick to credit Shelton for the hours of work they've put in the past few weeks to basically rebuild his swing, with a re-emphasis on hitting to rightfield.
"They did little things with his stance and his hand positioning," Maddon said. "You can see he's in a better hitting position. Just watching it from the side, he's more ready. He's looking more like he did in spring training. He's slowly climbing his numbers up right now, and his confidence is just different. And he's playing a great second base."
MISCELLANY: SS Reid Brignac had a 15-pitch fourth-inning at-bat against Rich Harden before striking out, which Maddon pointed out "took an inning off Harden's life." … From FSN's Todd Kalas: Matt Garza won his fifth game on 5/5 and his sixth on 6/6. … At 4:06, it was the longest nine-inning road game in Rays history and second-longest anywhere. … 3B Evan Longoria went without batting gloves Sunday. … The only-in-Texas group singing the anthem: Redneck Tenors.