ST. PETERSBURG — Seventh inning, runner on second, two outs and Ryan Hanigan advances to the plate. Last year, he would dig in and watch as the pitcher did his best to not throw a ball in the strike zone.
The year before, too.
And they year before that.
Sliders when Hanigan was ahead 2-0 in the count. Sliders when he was ahead 3-1.
Why pitch to Hanigan, a contact hitter, when the pitcher is waiting on deck holding a bat?
“It can get frustrating,” Hanigan said. “Hitting eighth in the National League with the pitcher behind you, with guys in scoring position and two outs, you're not going to get pitched to.”
Welcome to the American League, Ryan.
This time, the pitcher goes after him even with first base open, and this time Hanigan singles home a run.
“His whole career he spent hitting in front of the pitcher, and that's completely different,” hitting coach Derek Shelton said. “Now, it's a whole different mindset of what he's got to do, what pitches he's got to swing at and what pitches he can't swing at. I think being in the American League, he's going to benefit from that.”
Hanigan entered Saturday's game against the Indians batting .272 with 18 RBIs, 10 walks and a .359 on-base percentage.
He was hitting .538 with a .647 on-base percentage when batting with two outs and runners in scoring position. He drew four walks on those occasions, none intentional.
“It's good to be pitched to,” Hanigan said.
The Rays saw this kind of production in Hanigan, which is one reason they traded with the Reds for the catcher in December. The other, of course, is his work behind the plate. But getting a little more punch offensively from a catcher is always a plus, and the Rays will take all the pluses they can get.
“That's beautiful, man,” manager Joe Maddon said. “The thing about hitting him ninth with a good leadoff man behind him, that's going to get him better pitches, and that's what's been going on.”
Hanigan played in 75 games in 2013, most of them while coping with strained ligaments in his hand.
“It never felt better until the offseason when I got a chance to rest it,” Hanigan said. “It didn't heal.”
So being healthy is a major part of Hanigan's success this season.
And so is batting in front of Ben Zobrist or David DeJesus or anyone else Maddon has penciled in at the top of the order.
“I feel like I can be aggressive,” Hanigan said. “When I get chances to drive in runs I've had some success. I'm getting chances to attack balls in the strike zone instead of maybe getting a pitch to hit or taking a walk or getting intentionally walked.”
Hanigan played a career-high 112 games in 2012, the last season in which he was healthy. He hit .083 with two outs and runners in scoring position. He did have a .421 on-base percentage, though, because he managed to walk 14 times, 10 of them intentionally.
He came to bat eight times that season with runners on second and third and was walked intentionally four times.
“He's the mold of a Ray hitter,” Shelton said. “There's a lot of contact. He controls the strike zone. We talk a lot about controlling at-bats, and that's something he does, and I think that's one of the benefits he's going to have being in the American League. In the National League, sometimes you have to go out of your hitting zone because of the pitcher behind you, and here he does not have to do that.”
Hanigan has shown those skills during this homestand. On Wednesday, his RBI single in the ninth inning cut the Orioles' lead to one run. On Thursday, his leadoff single in the ninth inning enabled the Rays to get the tying run to the plate. On Friday, he drew a two-out walk that kept a threat alive as the Rays tried to erase a four-run deficit.
“The thought that he's going to be here for three more years is a pretty cool thought,” Maddon said. “Because this guy is really good.”