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The thinking man's ballgame

There are some fundamental differences in the way the Devil Rays are going through spring training under new manager Joe Maddon.

In his first 10 days, Maddon has made it clear that small things are a big deal. He puts a premium on fundamentals of the game, believes deeply in theory and visual concepts and stresses communication and relationships.

So far, the Rays seem to like what they've seen, heard and been prodded to think about.

"It's been good," leftfielder Carl Crawford said. "That's the thing we didn't have last year, the little fundamentals and stuff like that. I feel like it's to the point where I love coming to the field every day because I'm learning something new. And that's a good feeling."

There's no fair way to say that Maddon's methods are right, former manager Lou Piniella's more hands-off approach was wrong or the other way around.

But it has been obvious that Maddon and his staff have shown the Rays a different way of doing things.

For example, through some subtle changes to basic training drills, points that might be ignored if made verbally are emphasized visually.

The inside corner of the bases are painted to reinforce where runners should hit the bag. Popups are hit by coaches rather than lobbed from a machine to have more authentic spin. Orange duct tape will soon be put on the barrel of bats to provide a clearer illustration of how the ball is being hit.

"I'm into concepts big time," Maddon said. "You can talk about it till you're blue in the face, but if you give them something to think about mentally, then, "Hmm, that makes sense.'

"Then all of a sudden, the body starts working in unison with the thought. That's probably the best way I can describe it. Then that thought becomes a proper physical mechanic. Instead of 10 different thoughts in their head, you just give them one simple one and see if everything else happens."

Another change is the amount of time the Rays spend talking to each other.

It looked odd during last week's bullpen sessions when pitchers and catchers paired off to discuss preferences and theories, but Maddon wants to make sure each understands what the other is thinking.

"I know how deeply I believe in that relationship and how it impacts the win column," Maddon said. "No one is going to win unless the pitching staff does a great job and the catchers are true extensions of the pitchers. So why not bring these people together as closely as possible? That's what we're trying to do."

Overall, Maddon wants to make sure everybody knows what they are doing, why they are doing it and how it is supposed to work. It's not unusual for the Rays to meet at the end of one practice to go over what they are going to do the next day, meet again at the start of the next day's session and to stop in mid drill to talk about it again.

Sometimes they get even deeper. Sunday's post-workout chat session, for example, wasn't just about the catcher giving signs to the pitcher, but delved into theories of how and why.

"I like them to think," Maddon said.

Maddon isn't just teaching things differently. He is teaching the Rays different things.

Catchers are learning what Maddon calls the "Mike Scioscia Plate Block" to improve their positioning for close plays at the plate. Runners are being taught to make sharp cuts on the bases rather than loopy turns. Infielders' responsibilities on bunt plays are changed to emphasize getting out the lead runner.

"He wants to make fundamentals basic to us," shortstop Julio Lugo said. "He wants everybody to play the way you're supposed to play."

There also have been some practical changes.

Rather than have the players do their running at the end of the workout and have it appear punitive, Maddon moved it to early in the session. The idea is that their legs will be fresher, but there is a mental side to it too. This way, when they are done with their last drill, they get to walk off the field.

The entire program is designed to get the most out of each session.

"I don't believe in just being out there and just grinding away," Maddon said. "Let's do it intelligently, let's do it quickly, let's get it done. And then move on."