LOS ANGELES — There was Sam Fuld advancing to the plate for the biggest at-bat during Wednesday’s game against the Diamondbacks, hitting for Wil Myers, who, as we soon learned, was in the training room dealing with asthma-like symptoms.
The move during the seventh inning of what at the time was a one-run game caught everyone by surprise, Fuld included.
On the mound was left-hander Joe Thatcher, who has that funky sidearm, nearly underhand delivery that gives left-handed batters fits.
Fuld dropped a single to left field, scoring two runs to give the Rays the lead.
Lost in the excitement of Myers leaving the game and the Rays blowing the lead in the ninth was just how difficult a moment that was for Fuld.
He made it easier by watching video of all the Diamondback relievers before the first game of the series, so he had an idea of what he was facing in Thatcher.
And, because Fuld learned over the course of his big-league career that the most important part of his game is being ready.
“There’s no doubt it’s a challenge,” Fuld said. “In some ways it’s as tough as you want to make it.”
Sean Rodriguez understands. So does Matt Joyce.
As hard as it is to be an everyday player — and Joyce has gone through stretches in which he was just that — it’s even harder to not play every day yet still be expected to produce.
“It’s hard to not play every day and keep your timing,” Joyce said. “The way hitting works, if anything is off, if your timing is off, if your feel is off by less than an inch, that’s the difference between hitting a line drive and flying out, striking out or hitting a home run.”
Bench players are no strangers to the batting cages, where they will crank up the velocity to simulate a mid-90s fastball or have the hitting coach throw from a shorter distance.
“It’s different when you’re facing 95 and guys are throwing nasty off-speed pitches,” Joyce said. “It’s really hard to replicate.”
Joyce started Wednesday and reached base all five times to the plate with his first three-hit game since May 18. He also was thrown out twice on the bases, something that can be attributed to rust from not being on base a lot lately to trying to do too much.
“It’s a hard game, period, man, whether you’re playing every day or whatever your role is. It’s a tough game,” Joyce said.
Bench players/role players are vital to the Rays as manager Joe Maddon frequently goes to his bench. You might not be starting, but you could be finishing, so be prepared.
Because of that, Rodriguez said it’s not hard to stay mentally prepared every day. But physically? Twice this season Rodriguez has sat for four straight games. Once he sat for five games.
Fuld went through an eight-game stretch in which he didn’t have an at-bat, although he did see time as a defensive replacement.
Staying ready on defense is not as difficult, Fuld said. Shagging flies during batting practice is no different than running them down during games. It’s the batting and the base running that can be a challenge if the opportunities come sporadically.
“Sometimes it’s important to throw, simulate throws from the outfield. Anything you can do,” Fuld said. “Even base running. Working on your breaks, taking a lead, remembering what your lead is supposed to look like. There’s a ton of things that can go rusty if you go a couple of days without using it.”
The Rays’ run toward a playoff spot is built on pitching and defense. The offense is expected to be carried by the everyday players. But the season is also riding on what guys like Fuld, Joyce, Rodriguez and Ryan Roberts can provide. Remember, two of the biggest hits in franchise history were pinch-hit home runs by Dan Johnson.
“It’s easy to fall into that trap of being frustrated (by the lack of playing time), and it’s also easy to try to do too much when you do get an opportunity when you know the next opportunity might be three days away,” Fuld said. “For me that’s the challenge, to stay in the moment. But that’s easier said than done.”