Jones: Mallex Smith has the write stuff for Rays

Rays center fielder Mallex Smith smiles after hitting a single advancing runners in the third inning. [CHRIS URSO   |   Times]
Rays center fielder Mallex Smith smiles after hitting a single advancing runners in the third inning. [CHRIS URSO | Times]
Published June 22, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG — When Kevin Kiermaier went down with an injury earlier this month, the Rays' season was supposed to go down with him.

That happened last year. Remember? The centerfielder missed two months and Tampa Bay fell off the face of the earth, going 14-34 in his absence. So when he went on the disabled list on June 9, many expected the Rays' engine to once again sputter, stall, crash and burn without its sparkplug.

After Wednesday's 8-3 victory against the Reds, the Rays are 8-5 since KK fractured his hip sliding into first base.

How have they done it? Mallex Smith. Write it down. Actually, Smith will write it down. (More on his writing skills in a moment.)

There are lots to like about the Rays lineup these days. DH Corey Dickerson is All-Star worthy. Logan Morrison is blasting homers, having a career year. Steven Souza Jr. and Tim Beckham have made solid contributions. And Evan Longoria is still capable of carrying a club for a spell.

RELATED: Five reasons for the Rays to be encouraged after series win over Reds

But Smith has meant as much as anyone in this lineup since returning from the minors when Kiermaier got hurt. He had two more hits Wednesday, extending his hitting streak to 12 games, the longest active streak in the American League. In that span, he's hitting at a torrid .396 clip and has an on-base percentage of .442. For the year, he's batting .352.

He added an RBI Wednesday and a stolen base — his ninth in only 21 games. He even raced in from leftfield to make the putout on a rundown.

Is there anything he can't do?

"Pretty much just me doing my thing," Smith, 24, said. "These guys have been rolling before I got here, so I just wanted to make sure I came and kept it moving, kept the train going."

When he's at his best — putting the ball in play, laying down bunts, stealing bases, starting rallies — he's the prototypical leadoff hitter. The Rays are 7-2 in games Smith leads off.

"He creates havoc," Souza said.

RELATED: Rays journal: Alert Mallex Smith comes in from leftfield to get putout on rundown.

But, surprisingly, he has done more than just slap at the ball, hoping to find a hole.

"He has probably produced above what we thought," Rays manager Kevin Cash said. "He has squared up a lot of balls. We know he's capable of putting the ball in play, getting hits. But he has driven some balls and had some just-misses. The ball comes off his bat (hard), and that's not something we expected coming out of spring training."

The question is: Can he keep it going? We're still talking about a very small sample size for a guy who came into the season as a career .238 big-league hitter. Kiermaier is out until at least August. If the Rays are going to continue to hang around the playoff pack, Smith will have to continue to play the best baseball of his career.

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That means hitting, running, stealing and writing. Yes, writing.

Smith keeps a journal on the bench. After each at-bat, he writes what just happened. Like he did Wednesday. Reds pitcher Tim Adleman struck Smith out in the first inning, and Smith dropped his bat and picked up a pen.

"(I wrote) just how I felt about my first at-bat," Smith said. "I think it was one of my first times seeing him. How did I feel when I was up there, the pitches that he threw me, how confident I was in my at-bat, the thing I should be prepared for the next time I go up."

RELATED: Beat writer Marc Topkin's takeaways from Wednesday's Rays-Reds game.

Whatever he wrote, it worked. Smith singled in each of his next two at-bats.

"I'll use the video, too, because the video shows everything I did," Smith said. "But the journal is like my personal diary. What did I see up there? It's me talking to me."

It's unusual to lose a high-energy, makes-things-happen player and have another one just like him in the organization.

"You usually don't have it," Cash said. "There's a lot of similarities just in the way he can ignite a clubhouse and a dugout."

Smith can't play defense like Kiermaier. Then again, very few can. But Smith has added more offense than Kiermaier was giving the Rays. If he can keep it going at the plate, the Rays will be able to survive Kiermaier's absence.

And Smith will have plenty to write about the rest of the summer.

Contact Tom Jones at Follow >@tomwjones.