FORT MYERS — It was a rather bold challenge, though one Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon issues to position players every spring.
Early in camp Maddon challenged right fielder Wil Myers to win a Gold Glove this season.
“To me that would be the epitome of him having a great second season,” Maddon said.
And Myers’ response?
Maddon likened it to something you might hear from one of Maddon’s all-time favorite characters from one of his all-time favorite movies — Ricky Bobby, the star of “Talladega Nights,” played by Will Farrell.
“I can do that,” Myers said.
It would be a heck of a feat for Myers to be voted the top defensive player at his position when you consider a player’s reputation still factors into the voting despite an effort to incorporate defensive metrics into the evaluation.
Still, Maddon’s challenge is aimed to getting Myers to raise his level of defensive play, which both Maddon and Myers feel is greatly under appreciated.
“I feel like everybody knows me for my defense from that one play in Boston, and everybody thinks I’m just a hitter,” Myers said Monday after playing six innings in the Rays 6-2 loss to Boston at jetBlue Park. “But I’m not a bad defender, either. That’s something I don’t think people give me credit for, but it’s something I’m looking to prove this year.”
Oh, that one play.
It occurred during the fourth inning during Game 1 of the AL Division Series against the Red Sox at Fenway Park. The Rays led 2-0 with Dustin Pedroia on first base and no outs. David Ortiz lifted a fly ball to the warning track in right field. Myers settled under the ball until the last second, when he noticed center fielder Desmond Jennings drifting his way. Assuming Jennings was going to catch the ball, Myers stepped forward. The ball bounced on the track and into the Red Sox bullpen. The Red Sox scored five runs that inning, turning the tide of the game and probably the best-of-five series which they won in four games, and Red Sox fans had someone else to tease.
So, from “Myyyyeeers! Myyyyeeers! Myyyyeeers!” to Gold Glove?
“Honestly, I don’t think it’s as much of a reach,” Maddon said. “I know he had the one play (at Fenway), that’s just a play, an isolated incident. As a coach you’re out there working with the guys, you’re watching specific things, and you’re watching his feet and you’re watching how quick he can be, how much ground he can cover, and you watch his throwing, how the ball comes out of his hand, he has the potential. It’s definitely in there. That’s a matter of application. And then the player has to believe it. It comes down to the player believing it and the player wanting it. It’s definitely within his abilities to do that, absolutely.”
Myers was limited defensively last season by a sore arm, a minor injury that had him serve as the designated hitter so Maddon could keep his bat in the lineup. The move kept Myers’ legs off Tropicana Field’s AstroTurf, as well. It also sent the message the Rays were a better defensive team with Myers not in right field.
Maddon mentioned in November when Myers won the AL Rookie of the Year that Myers needed to improve defensively. But Maddon said those improvements do not require a major overhaul. Maddon said Myers has “great instincts for the game” and is “physically gifted.” The improvements, Maddon said, are not “crazy stuff.” Just tweak this, tighten that.
“I just think the biggest thing is people don’t know I’m a good defender,” Myers said. “People just think I’m a hitter, only. I don’t have a lot of stolen bases, so people don’t think I’m fast. I’m not slow at all by any means. I had some arm problems last year that was running into I wasn’t able to let it go in the outfield. But I have to tools to play defense and play at a high level. My arm finally feels healthy and I’m excited to get out there and show them what I can prove.”