Under Maddon, Escobar thriving with Rays

Under Maddon, Escobar thriving with Rays

ST. PETERSBURG -- The double play has always been one of baseball's most exciting plays.

The pitcher's best friend can turn a potentially dangerous situation into the end of an inning with one swing. It generally requires three defenders, five hands and two exchanges of the ball. Two players are retired regardless of whether the scorecard reads "4-6-3" or "6-4-3."

Double plays are common, but on July 24 at Fenway Park, Tampa Bay Rays shortstop Yunel Escobar started one in a very uncommon manner.

With the Rays holding a three-run lead in the bottom of the fourth inning, Red Sox leadoff man Shane Victorino singled. Dustin Pedroia then took David Price's second offering -- a cut fastball that began to drift down in the strike zone -- and pounded it on the ground, just left of second base.

Escobar ranged to his left, scooped the ball with his glove and, in one fluid motion, flipped the ball behind his back to second baseman Ben Zobrist, who barehanded the toss and relayed it to first base. What initially looked like a base hit quickly erased both Pedroia and Victorino, and Escobar engineered it without his right hand ever touching the ball. One pitch, three hands, two outs, 6-4-3.

The Rays' broadcasters were beside themselves. Twitter lit up as bloggers scrambled in a dash to be the first to show the digital world a replay. It quickly shot up to the No. 1 play on the Top 10 on "SportsCenter" and has become a part of the team's TV promotion rotation.

Price called it the "best ever" play he has seen a teammates make while on the mound. Zobrist called it "smooth, easy and perfect."

Escobar called it, simply, "Just a reaction play."

"He plays it in his mind," manager Joe Maddon said. "He did it on a playground. He did it on some field in Cuba when he was a kid."

Maddon has often used "chrome" to describe the 30-year-old Escobar's playing style, and the double play certainly qualified.

In his first season with the Rays, Escobar already owns the franchise record for consecutive games played without an error played by a shortstop (53). After a horrid start to the season offensively, he has rounded into one of Tampa Bay's more consistent run producers. Escobar appears to have found comfort hitting ninth, where he holds a .301 batting average and often helps to turn Maddon's "swarming" lineup card over.

But the chrome doesn't end there for Escobar. He carries it with him throughout the day. Escobar drives an Aston Martin to Tropicana Field and his fashion style is unlike any other in the clubhouse.

After the uniform is on, Escobar's chrome carries itself to the dugout. He has a personalized pregame handshake routine with almost every player on the roster. Pitching coach Jim Hickey and third-base coach Tom Foley have even been in on the action recently.

"It's entertainment, man, and this guy entertains," Maddon said. "You watch before the game how he energizes the dugout before everyone takes the field. He's always up. He's upbeat. He brings a lot of positive energy to us."

Once on the field, the act picks up. Although Escobar speaks little English, he is one of the more audible Rays, the "zany" one in an otherwise calm bunch, according to Maddon.

"He's always yelling different, crazy things during games, things in Spanish that don't make sense," catcher Jose Lobaton said. "Yunel wants everyone to see him, but that's good for us.

"I like infielders talking. It makes the game feel alive. If there are thousands of people here and everyone is quiet in the infield, what kind of game is that?"

Given the way Escobar plays, his white home uniform does not stand a chance of staying clean for long, so he saves himself the trouble by taking a handful of infield dirt and rubbing it on his pants before the first pitch is thrown. He quickly sullies the grounds crew's carefully laid chalk lines at the upper border of the batter's box before every at-bat. After Escobar makes one of his signature plays at shortstop, he makes the shooting motion of a basketball jumper.

"It's just something I've been accustomed to doing," Escobar said. "It's the way I play, so I hope I'm not offending the other team, because I'm just out there having fun."

But Escobar's antics have been interpreted as more than "having fun" in the past and the implications have been far-reaching. The LBGT community will not soon forget about Escobar writing a gay slur on his eye black last season while he was with the Blue Jays. He apologized after Major League Baseball served him a three-game suspension.

Escobar has been traded three times in his seven-year career. He was dealt from Toronto to Miami during the offseason, but he never stepped on the field for the Marlins. Escobar was sent to Tampa Bay less than two weeks later after he made it clear he was not enthused about playing third base.

"We talked about the [eye-black] incident, but everything else seemed a little superficial," Maddon said. "With all our guys, I want them to feel a freedom to be themselves here. If they are, they're going to play better. There are different ways to derive discipline. It doesn't have to be by trying to control behavior. I'm so not into that. That takes way too much mental energy to even attempt to do. You're seeing him being comfortable, and when he's comfortable, he's a really good baseball player. And I believe he's going to keep getting better."

Maddon continues to preach the laid-back "Ray Way" to Escobar, and so far, Maddon's managing tactics and Escobar's playing style appear destined for each other. Without receiving the go-ahead from Maddon, Escobar stole third base against the Astros on July 13. He would later score to tie the game in an eventual Rays win.

"I feel like I can be myself here," Escobar said through a translator. "They don't downgrade my style of play as long as I'm catching the ball and hitting the ball. I'm comfortable and having a lot of fun. It's great that Joe gives me the flexibility to play the game the way I feel comfortable."

The way Escobar "feels comfortable" is turning into a thrill ride to watch. Just ask any of the 36,514 fans in attendance at that game at Fenway Park last month.

Sam Strong is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.