Joe Henderson Columns
There's a lot to like about Jennings
ST. PETERSBURG - That was a dandy afternoon of baseball Thursday at Tropicana Field. When you combine a good weekday crowd of 28,491 — boosted by about 14,000 ThunderStick-pounding kids from area recreation programs — with the kind of game the Rays and Toronto Blue Jays played, you've got something worth the near four-hour investment it took to watch. And who knows, maybe some of those thunderous tykes will remember the afternoon as yet another step in the development of left fielder Desmond Jennings. This was only his 12th game since being recalled from Durham, but he seems to be making a habit of doing dramatic things. Of course, Jennings has worn the label of "The Next Big Thing" for a while now and it looks legit. He didn't show much during a stay with the Rays last summer, but he looks completely different now. He is confident, instinctive and not at all in awe of his surroundings."I got experience last year, just being around it and everything," he said. "I got more relaxed and more comfortable." He had three more hits to raise his batting average to .354, which goes along with his .446 on-base percentage at the top of the lineup. Even for a short sampling, that's good stuff. It doesn't begin to tell the whole story though of his contributions in the Rays' 7-6 win that took 12 innings to accomplish. Another rookie, catcher Robinson Chirinos, drove in the winning run with a two-out single off Toronto reliever Shawn Camp, the Rays' ol' buddy from days gone by. But Chirinos would never have had a chance to take the hero's bow if Jennings hadn't had his game-changing impact on the previous 11 innings. Let us count the ways. With the Rays down 2-0 with one on in the fifth, he bunted for a one-out single. "That was a perfect bunt. He and (bench coach) Davey Martinez have been working hard to improve his bunting skills, which I think is fantastic," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. Yes, that was good. What followed was better. Jennings busted it down the line on Johnny Damon's grounder and slid hard into second, buying just enough time for Damon to avoid an inning-ending double play. When Evan Longoria followed with a three-run homer, well, what is it they say about how the box score doesn't always show the biggest plays? Jennings has intangibles that didn't always show up in the reports when he was at Durham. "Primarily the stuff I had heard about was his at-bats, it wasn't all this other stuff," Maddon said. Part of that stuff is the ability to perform in the clutch. With the Rays down a run, Jennings homered deep into the left-field seats leading off the 10th. That was his third homer in his short stay with the Rays. Asked if he is surprised by the power, Maddon admitted, "I am, I swear I am. We knew he had power but this is raw power, man. These balls are going real far. They're no-doubters. The thing I like is that it's an easy, effortless, tension-free kind of a swing and the ball is jumping. To me, that is the ultimate baseball swing right there." Jennings is polite, respectful, but kind of quiet. Don't mistake that for a lack of confidence. I told him what Maddon said about his power and asked if he, too, is surprised. He grinned, shrugged, and said, "No, not really." Whether you expected what Jennings has brought or are surprised, one thing is not in dispute. Man, do the Rays need everything he is doing. Let's be honest here. The rest of this season is about building for next year and beyond, and Jennings has provided a spark in what could be the dog days of a season that will fall short of expectations. "We've been hearing a lot of talk about him. He has been everything we needed right now, a shot in the offense for our offense. A few of us are scuffling, but with him hitting like this it makes the offense go smoother," Damon said. "He had the big home run for us, he's getting on base, he's causing havoc. It's great to see. Talent like that doesn't come around too often."