ST. PETERSBURG - Look at Desmond Jennings go. Singles on the first pitch of the game one night and doubles on the second pitch of the game the following afternoon. He's stealing bases. He's hitting home runs. "Let's see if Dez can stir it up in the 1 hole," Rays manager Joe Maddon said last week when he re-inserted his leadoff hitter as the leadoff hitter against both lefties and righties. And Dez stirred it up, turning in back-to-back three-hit games Thursday and Friday.
Jennings hit .579 as the leadoff hitter in the five games prior to Saturday's night's game against the White Sox. Jennings is back to swinging at only strikes, back to getting on base. "The quality of contact has gotten harder," Maddon said. It seems as if the Rays have found the catalyst for the top of the order. "We need him on base to set it up, to feed Longo," Maddon said. "I want us to feed Longo." Understand this: Every lineup Maddon has drawn up this year has been done with the idea of getting runners on base ahead of Evan Longoria and having the right bats behind Longoria to protect the team's best hitter. "Feed No. 4 and then protect him," Maddon said. That's why Maddon moved Matt Joyce to the top of the order when Jennings slumped, because Joyce can draw walks. "Matt Joyce was up there even though he doesn't fit the prototypical concept of a leadoff hitter," Maddon said. "He gets on base." But with Joyce slumping and Jennings hitting, it was time to move Jennings back to the top, to where he belongs, right? "I consider myself a leadoff hit, because that's where I hit my whole career," Jennings said. Maddon considers Jennings a leadoff hitter, because right now he's the best player on the roster suited for the job. Yet Maddon doesn't see Jennings as fitting the prototypical leadoff hitter profile. "If his on-base percentage is up, he does," Maddon said. "That's the misconception. Right now he profiles as the No. 3 or 4 or 5 hitter for me. Because he has 10 homers, he can drive in a run. He hits doubles. Of course he can steal a base. Because he's fast and can steal a base doesn't necessarily profile somebody as a No. 1 hitter. He's got to get on base enough to set the table for me to truly be a No. 1 hitter, because you got to get on base enough for the guys to drive you in. He might just be the other thing. I don't know yet." When told Maddon sees him as more of a heart-of-the-order hitter, Jennings thought for a moment then said, "I'll be OK hitting wherever." Jennings has a .331 on-base percentage this season. He has a .337 on-base percentage as a leadoff hitter and a .370 on-base percentage during the first at-bat of the game. Maddon said he would like Jennings to raise his on-base percentage to at least .350. Hall of famer Rickey Henderson, considered the best leadoff hitter of all-time, had a .380 on-base percentage as the first batter of the game (with 81 home runs) and a .391 on-base percentage while leading off an inning. Mike Trout of the Angels leads the American League this season with a .398 on-base percentage as a leadoff hitter. But he's only had that job for 18 games. Jacoby Ellsbury of the Red Sox has the highest on-base percentage with the most at-bats - .365 in 348 at-bats. Given the way he likes to set his lineup to create better matchups against the starting pitchers, you would think Maddon could live without a prototypical leadoff hitter, and you would be wrong. He would love to have that guy. "Everybody would," Maddon said. "You got a guy that's out there in a 35 to 36, 37 percent rate (or) even better, my God, that makes a huge difference in your team. A guy that's on first base a lot in the first inning and really starts to put pressure on the other side, huge difference, can really jump-start an offense, no question." Which is what Jennings is doing since he was moved back to the top. "I'm just going up there trying to get hits," he said. "You're a leadoff hitter once when you lead off the game. "After that, you fall in line like everybody else." [email protected] (813) 259-7227 Twitter: @RMooney.TBO