Sunday, February 25, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

What do Rays like about Escobar? A lot

PORT CHARLOTTE — The highlights of how well shortstop Yunel Escobar played were definitely dazzling, topped by a behind-the-back toss in Boston that still defies adequate description.

But what stood out more about Escobar's first season with the Rays — and what stood in direct contrast to the reputation that preceded him — was how he played.

"He plays the game as hard as anybody I've ever been around," third baseman Evan Longoria said.

Escobar, 31, came to the Rays via the Marlins from the Blue Jays, where he was described as selfish, cocky, lackadaisical and moody, among other things.

But the Rays can't say enough good things about him.

"Just a great, great teammate," ace David Price said.

Ask around the clubhouse about how Escobar impressed the most, and you get different versions of the same basic answer.

"How hard he plays and how much he works at trying to get better," first baseman James Loney said.

Manager Joe Maddon starts with one word.

"Energy," Maddon said.

"Daily energy. He's like a socket — you plug into him. The rest of the players can plug into him and he provides energy. That's what he does. He's got an incredible gift to love to play this game. He's got a joy about playing the game of baseball. And it's infectious."

The show actually begins a couple hours before game time when Escobar goes through what infield coach Tom Foley said is a unique routine, taking ground balls at specific spots on the dirt — the standard shortstop position, in the hole, behind third, up the middle and in double-play position. "And he does it at 100 percent," Foley said. "He takes every ground ball game ready, full bore."

From there, Escobar provides plenty of chatter as a soundtrack and some high-energy moves in the dugout before taking the field.

"His work ethic is absolutely crazy," Price said.

Longoria said he tried not to have any preconceived notions but, like other Rays, was pleasantly surprised after being on the same side to get a sense of what Escobar was really like.

"The more I got to know him, the more he was around, the more I was able to appreciate the way he played the game," Longoria said. "As opposed to when you're on the other side, you were kind of like, 'This guy is jumping all over the place, he's whistling, he's loud.' "

Escobar was one of three finalists for the American League Gold Glove award, which Maddon has since said — oh, about 50 times — that he should have won rather than Baltimore's J.J. Hardy.

And in between a rough first and last couple weeks, Escobar hit a solid .285 with nine homers and 53 RBIs in 126 games with a .762 on-base plus slugging percentage.

His performance was a product of how comfortable Maddon and the Rays made him feel.

"He treats me with a lot of respect," Escobar said through an interpreter. "We're here to win. That's really helped me, having that respect in the dugout every time I come back. …

"People can say what they want from the past, but really I got here on the first day and everything was based off of that. People can say things about my past and my reputation, but I got to meet the people here and that's what they're basing everything on. That's who I am here, and how I carry myself here."

Though the language barrier remains an issue (or a convenience), Escobar— who came over from Cuba in 2004 — has a playful side, best evidenced by his habit of taking an NBA-style jump shot after a big play.

The Rays are acknowledging it with a July 13 Yunel Escobar Basketball Hoop giveaway, though Maddon on Tuesday suggested a better idea.

"This guy is instant energy," Maddon said. "He totally is. They should do an energy bar named after him — the Esco-Bar."

Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @TBTimes_Rays.

   
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