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Tampa Bay Rays bat Carlos Peña second, for a game at least

Rays first baseman Carlos Peña, striking out in the first inning of the spring game against the Pirates, says he was caught off guard when told he’d be batting second but is happy to oblige.
Published Mar. 12, 2012

PORT CHARLOTTE — There is very little the Rays won't at least try.

With convention to be bucked and tradition to be shunned, they are always looking for another way, and their own way, to do things. And to do things better.

Which is what led to a lineup for Sunday's exhibition game in which slugger Carlos Peña was hitting second.

Manager Joe Maddon ran through all the usual spring provisos (missing players, extra at-bats), then admitted that it's among the options — perhaps the most odd — they will consider in sorting out the best way to maximize their batting order, in this case taking advantage of Peña's usual high on-base percentage.

"Just an interesting thought," Maddon said.

Peña, much more of a standard middle-of-the-order, cleanup type left-handed hitter, was surprised when first approached but later applauded the idea and the effort.

"I dig it," he said. "It's awesome, him messing around like that and fearlessly doing things that may not be the norm and not be afraid to do so. … I appreciate that."

There are two basic elements to the plan:

That having a hitter like Peña, who tends to work counts, has a career .352 on-base percentage and is a decent baserunner, in that slot will make the overall lineup flow better, given that the traditional table-setting No. 2 hitter has been somewhat phased out.

And that hitting after leadoff man Desmond Jennings and before Evan Longoria will put Peña, who strikes out a lot and has a .216 average over the past three seasons, in improved situations, getting better pitches to hit.

"You're looking at on-base percentage right there, and furthermore, can you enhance that by having him hit there in front of a real prominent hitter," Maddon said. "Does that then have him see better pitches possibly, and then here it comes, more batting average along with the discerning eye?"

There are other potential benefits as well.

One is in creating better balance of left- and right-handers, as Maddon prefers to alternate and Jennings and Longoria are right-handed hitters, as is B.J. Upton, another candidate for the No. 2 spot. With Peña second, the Rays could craft an interesting middle of the order from switch-hitter Ben Zobrist, lefties Matt Joyce and Luke Scott, and Upton.

Another is foiling the shift that teams use on Peña, much like Maddon has the Rays employ on pull-hitting opponents. Their thought is that if the speedy Jennings is on base, defenders will have to be positioned differently to deal with the threat of a steal.

"It makes the other team make a lot of choices, that's all," Maddon said.

Peña especially likes that part. "If you run the shift, it might mess with it a little bit. It will be curious to see how it would work," he said. "He invented it, so he needs to come up the antivenom."

The Rays will look at other combinations as they seek to settle on a plan for the final two weeks of the exhibition season. But with Longoria making his exhibition debut Sunday, they were quick to try this one out. Peña was 0-for-2 with a walk, Longoria 0-for-1 with a walk and a sac fly.

"It kinda looked good," Maddon said. "There's nothing to be read into it other than I do want to take different looks during the course of his camp and we'll see how it's all going to play out. But it kind of had a nice little ring to it."

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@tampabay.com.

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