NEW YORK -- Matt Joyce entered Tuesday hitting .073 this month. So how does the manager handle that?
For Rays manager Joe Maddon, it wasn't all that complicated. Rather than drop Joyce in the order or maybe bench him for a game or two, he moved him up.
Yes, up. You know, like Joyce was his hottest hitter. Actually, Maddon moved Joyce all the way to the leadoff spot. In previous years, he'd done the same thing when Carlos Pena and Evan Longoria struggled.
"It's about simplifying things," Maddon said.
Maddon first did it with a kid he had in the Texas League, a big, powerful cleanup hitter named Kevin King. When King's averaged dipped to .230 around midseason one year, Maddon decided to try something completely different. Maddon made King his leadoff hitter, and in doing so, told him to focus on drawing his walks and hitting singles up the middle. In other words, simplify.
"He ended up hitting .300 and went from seven homers to 30 homers," Maddon said.
On Tuesday afternoon, Joyce showed up to find himself serving as Tampa Bay's designated hitter and leadoff man.
"Never would have guessed that," he said.
Maddon told Joyce to focus on hitting balls back up the middle and to draw walks if they were there. Don't worry about a single other thing. Don't overthink it.
And now we bring you the magic of baseball's best manager.
Joyce hit Yankees starter Hiroki Kuroda's third pitch of game over the wall in right field Tuesday night, and the Rays were on their way to a 7-0 victory at Yankee Stadium.
That's five victories in a row at the most important time of the year as the Rays hold onto the top spot in a tight race for the two American League Wild Card berths. The Indians are one back in the loss column, the Rangers two.
"We're definitely in a good place mentally right now," Maddon said. "You can really feel the intensity of the group and the belief that we're going to get this done."
Yeah, good vibes are one thing the Rays have. One reason is Maddon uses his entire roster, platooning here, playing matchups there. No one sits for very long, and having everyone contribute helps the energy of the clubhouse.
When Tampa Bay wins, it usually is a team effort in every way that can be defined. For instance, Maddon started Ben Zobrist at second base on Tuesday. One day earlier, Zobrist had made two nice plays in left field against the Orioles. On Tuesday, he opened the game at second, and when starting shortstop Yunel Escobar twisted his ankle, Zobrist shifted from second to short.
"I think guys know their roles and accept them," first baseman James Loney said.
"I love that," he said. "I really believe that's one of the things we do here that permits the camaraderie that you feel. And also the fact that they're not overly tired at this time of the season."
The Rays finish the season with two more games at Yankee Stadium and then three at Toronto. Maddon has his rotation lined up so that David Price, Wednesday's starter, could go in the AL Wild Card Game on Oct 2.
It hasn't been the smoothest of seasons. At various times, the Rays have done a terrific imitation of the best team in baseball. At other times, they've been offensively challenged. And then when two starting pitchers, Alex Cobb and Matt Moore, went on the disabled list, it looked like Tampa Bay might miss the postseason altogether.
The Rays lost 13 of 17 during one stretch, but they have turned it around dramatically by winning 10 of 13. Moore lasted just five innings against the Yanks and allowed three hits and six walks.
But Maddon got four shutout innings from his bullpen, and Tampa Bay had its 16th shutout of the season, including the third in the past two weeks.
If the Rays make the playoffs, it'll be their fourth appearance in the past six years, and having long ago established that they're expertly constructed and smartly managed, they're one of the clubs that would surprise almost no one by winning the World Series.
"I wake up in the morning and feel excited," Maddon said. "I think it's a really fun time of the year. You work hard to get here. Why not enjoy it?"
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less