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Tampa Bay Rays owe thanks to Dodgers for Travis d’Arnaud

Since the May trade for $100,000, d’Arnaud has been a key contributor to the Rays’ success on and off the field.

LOS ANGELES — Travis d’Arnaud didn’t do much for the Dodgers during the five days he spent with them in early May. Were they to welcome him back with a video tribute Tuesday, they could actually show his entire career in Dodger blue: One pinch-hit at-bat, grounding out to short.

But what the Dodgers did for d’Arnaud, that’s a different story.

First, in signing him — and bringing him home — when he needed something good to happen after being surprisingly released the week before by the Mets, an unjust reward for his hard work to make it back after missing most of 2018 due to Tommy John elbow surgery.

And, much more so, in turning around and trading him to the Rays, who were desperate for catching help due to injuries and could give d’Arnaud what he needed most, the opportunity to get back on the field and play.

“I definitely appreciate that,” d’Arnaud said.

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So do the Rays, as d’Arnaud has turned out to be one of their best and most valuable players since taking a red-eye flight to join them at the Trop on May 11, and a key reason they are competing for a wild-card playoff berth at 89-62 with 11 games left.

What d’Arnaud has done on the field has been extremely obvious and immensely important.

He ranks among the team leaders in homers (16) and RBIs (63) while hitting a solid .266 with an .815 OPS. He has come through more than anyone in the clutch, with a Rays-high .349 average with runners in scoring position, 17 go-ahead and 11 game-winning RBIs.

“He’s at his best at the biggest moments,” said hitting coach Chad Mottola. “You can see, he’s been to the playoffs, he’s played for the Mets on that big stage. Where some of the other guys get sped up, he just kind of locks in that much more.”

Plus, he quickly learned their diverse pitching staff and different ways of doing things to merge with his experience and solidify the catching position, especially given Mike Zunino’s struggles, while also filling in handily at first base. “He’s just very easy to pitch to,” said Blake Snell, who returns to the mound Tuesday.

Tampa Bay Rays catcher Travis d'Arnaud (37) high fives the team after their win against Toronto Blue Jays on Sept. 7 at Tropicana Field. [ALLIE GOULDING | Times]

But what they rave about even more in the clubhouse is what a tremendous teammate d’Arnaud is, how he’s always positive and encouraging, makes clear winning is his top priority, is willing to share his experience and knowledge, especially among the less experienced pitchers, while being accommodating. (Or, as Snell called it, “the confident swag that he has to him.”)

“Just a great person, a great human being, a great person to be around,” outfielder Austin Meadows said. “He’s a great player, a selfless teammate. He’s been in the league a while, so he’s got that experience. We have fun out there with him.”

“You don’t know where you would be without somebody like that,” starter Charlie Morton said, “but I think it’s safe to say we wouldn’t be in as good of a spot.”

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With the Mets paying all but $500,000 or so of d’Arnaud’s $3.515 million salary, the Dodgers signed d’Arnaud as somewhat of an accessory. They were set with two catchers but needed a right-handed bat and had some thoughts of turning him into a super-utility type who could play first, third and leftfield.

The transition wasn’t going particularly well, and when the Rays called in their frantic scramble after losing Zunino and Michael Perez to injuries, the Dodgers felt it was the right thing to do for d’Arnaud.

It probably didn’t hurt that Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers chief of baseball operations, used to run the Rays and has remained close with their current staff.

Plus, the Dodgers, who got only $100,000 from the Rays for him, weren’t acting totally out of benevolence, as such moves are noted by players and agents around the game, and can lead to residual or reciprocal payoffs down the road.

“Travis is a really good player who has experienced quite a bit of bad luck in his career,” Friedman said. “At the moment we traded him, his opportunity with us was more as a bat off the bench and we didn’t want to stand in his way when he had the opportunity that unfolded for him with the Rays. It has been fun watching him make the most of his opportunity.”

D’Arnaud, understandably, is thrilled with how it has worked out.

Signing with the Dodgers was in a way therapeutic, allowing him to enjoy the experience of actually playing for the team he grew up watching, usually from seats in the outfield. “I wasn’t just driving to the games, I was going into the players’ (parking) lot and taking the elevators (down to the clubhouse),” he said.

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More importantly, he was having fun again.

“It was a winning culture so I was able to feed of that and get in good spirits after what I went through the week before,” he said.

As hectic as it was to pack up and bring his wife and daughter back across the country, d’Arnaud knew it was the best thing to reestablish his career.

“I just wanted to play,” he said. “So it was cool to be able to come here with the opportunity to show what I had. It was all just trusting myself and knowing that things were going to turn around.”

D’Arnaud, 30, is a free agent after the season, and there’s a slight paradox in that he may have played so well for the Rays that he may be too expensive for them to re-sign, as he likely earned a hefty raise and probably a multi-year deal.

Should d’Arnaud leave, at least when he comes back to the Trop, the Rays will have a lengthy highlight video to show.

Contact Marc Topkin at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

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