ARLINGTON, Texas — The move can be defended with data, statistics showing that Rays manager Joe Maddon's surprising decision to move rookie catcher John Jaso to the leadoff spot was actually a logical progression of thought.
But it can be perceived as an act of desperation, his latest and most extreme attempt to invigorate an offense that has become inconsistent and too many times, as again in Saturday's 6-1 loss to Texas, stunningly ineffective.
It was the 40th lineup Maddon has used in 56 games, and he plans to stick with the plan (against right-handers), though the initial results were hardly encouraging. Jaso went 0-for-4 and the Rays got five hits total against Tommy Hunter in his season debut and were 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position.
A rough first inning by starter James Shields — including a two-run homer to onetime Rays prospect Josh Hamilton — and an overall sloppy day on the bases and in the field didn't help. The Rays — still with the majors' best record at 36-20 and a two-game AL East lead — need a win today to avoid their first losing road trip.
Maddon turned to Jaso because of his team-high on-base percentage and penchant for working good at-bats, hoping it would create more scoring opportunities.
"We still don't have like an offensive identity," he said. "We're still searching for that based on some guys not hitting at their normal levels right now, and then you've got (Jason Bartlett) being injured, which throws a wrench into the whole thing also."
They don't hit for a high average (.255, eighth in the league) or hit a lot of homers (49, seventh), and they could get on base more (.333, sixth) and strike out less (442, 13th).
Their early season prowess was the product of an unusually high success rate with runners in scoring position, as well as extraordinary pitching, and it wasn't realistic to expect either trend to continue.
After hitting a major-league-best .336 with runners in scoring position through April 30, they have hit .228 since, which ranks at or near the bottom, and just .173 (19-for-110) in their current 4-8 skid.
Maddon believes it will be a two-step process to recovery,
First, he said, "We've gotten away from really working good at-bats in some situations." Second is for Carlos Peña (down to .169) and B.J. Upton (.218) to be content taking small steps back, "to really suppress the urge to try to get it all back at once."
Though there were some looks of disbelief around the clubhouse about the lineup — Jaso became the first catcher to lead off in team history, and first in an AL game since Oakland's Kurt Suzuki on May 4, 2009 — the players get Maddon's drift.
"He's trying to find a way to make this whole entire thing run the right way, and I don't blame him," Peña said. "The ideal thing would be to put one lineup up there and just know things are going to work out. But I know what he's trying to do: He's trying to light a fire some way."
"It really all depends on what kind of identity he wants us to have; with the guys we have, there's a lot of different ways he can go with it," Evan Longoria said. "As time goes on throughout the season, maybe he finds that one lineup or two that are a little different, and that will become part of our offensive identify. But I don't think we've really had a chance to develop one yet."
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com.