ST. PETERSBURG — It’s one thing to have an egalitarian mindset in a dugout, a sorta all-for-one and one-for-all philosophy of hardball.
It’s quite another to get competitive, proud, testosterone-heavy ballplayers to always buy in.
Most of these guys have spent a lifetime being the best hitter in a lineup, whether it’s Little League, high school, college or the minors. They have egos to feed and future contracts to consider.
And yet, in Tampa Bay’s dugout, there is an unspoken code of understanding and acceptance. Or maybe a muttering, huffy, annoyed, unspoken code of understanding and acceptance.
But the bottom line is this:
Almost anyone, at any moment, can be pulled for a pinch-hitter.
“They’re mad, and we want them to be,” manager Kevin Cash said. “I would never want to hear, ‘Oh yeah, go ahead (pinch-hit), I don’t want to face this guy.’ That’s not the mentality, the culture you want.
“But they’re able to understand that we’re trying to make the best decision to help the team win that night. And I think they all know that if the situation was reversed, it would be them going in to get the at-bat and that makes it a little easier.
“But, in the moment, those decisions are very challenging because you’re ultimately telling the guy you think somebody else has a better chance than they do.”
So Franco hits for Raley. Raley hits for Margot. Margot hits for J. Lowe. J. Lowe hits for Ramirez. Ramirez hits for Mejia. See where this is going? The Rays could do it all day.
Walls hits for Diaz. Diaz hits for B. Lowe. B. Lowe hits for Paredes. Paredes hits for Bethancourt. Up and down the lineup, the pinch-hitters change but not the philosophy.
“There’s a lack of ego involved in it,” said second baseman Brandon Lowe, who has an All-Star appearance and a pair of top-10 MVP seasons on his resume. “There’s also an understanding that it’s going to happen whether you like it or not. If you voice your displeasure, Cash will be like, ‘Noted,’ and move on. You’re still going to get pinch-hit for.
“Everybody in here understands this is it. There is no higher level than this, so the only thing that really matters is winning. If Isaac (Paredes) pinch-hitting in the sixth for me against a tough lefty is what it takes, then it’s understood it’s the best move for the team.”
This is not just an abstract concept. For the Rays, it’s a necessary path toward victory.
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Tampa Bay does not have the revenues/payroll to fill the lineup with high-priced stars who routinely log 500 at-bats, so the Rays create a versatile roster of left-handed/right-handed hitters who can play multiple positions to ensure Cash has the maneuverability to get favored matchups late in games.
The Rays have the platoon advantage in 54.5 percent of their plate appearances, which is slightly higher than the American League average of 51.9 percent. Going into Friday night’s games, they were the only team in the majors with 11 hitters with at least 100 plate appearances, suggesting an equal split of playing time for most of their position players.
Their pinch hitters also lead the majors with a .348 batting average.
“That was explained to me as soon as I got here, not so much that I’m going to get pulled for a pinch-hitter but that I need to be ready to pinch-hit,” first baseman Luke Raley said. “That’s something you know here. When you’re not in the lineup, you have to stay ready.
“I’m not going to speak for everyone, but I want to win the game and I have full faith in Cash to give us the best chance to win the game. So every time I see a lefty come in the game and I know my spot is coming up, I know there’s a chance I’m going to be pinch-hit for.”
That sounds great in principle, but it can sometimes be difficult in real time. Brandon Lowe is two years removed from a 39-homer season, and he sits against some lefties. Harold Ramirez hit .300 last season, and he’ll occasionally be pulled against a right-hander.
Josh Lowe hit a go-ahead three-run homer against the Yankees in the eighth inning nine days ago, yet sat for Manuel Margot an inning later when New York took the lead. At the time, Lowe was hitting .321 with nine homers but had only a handful of at-bats against left-handed pitching.
The conversations may be brief when the game is going on but, in situations like that, Cash will often pull the player aside later to explain his reasoning.
“I said, ‘Hey man, I totally understand you being upset. Respect the hell out of it. Keep doing what you’re doing, I’m thrilled.’ I just try to pour on the positive, which I genuinely feel,” Cash said. “It’s not easy. They are gut-wrenching decisions and they’re made spur of the moment.”
It’s been this way for quite some time in Tampa Bay. The willingness to share at-bats and not complain too loudly is as much a hallmark of Tampa Bay’s winning culture as openers, shifts and finding undiscovered gems.
The players don’t have to love it, they just need to be on board with it.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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