Maddon not daunted by Rays' start to season
CHICAGO -- You could have a better April than the one the Tampa Bay Rays are having.
You might not be able to find a better manager to deal with it, however.
With three-fifths of his starting rotation on the disabled list, his lineup not clicking, and the last two legs of a 10-game trip set to take him to Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium, Joe Maddon should have been moaning and groaning on Monday. But that wouldn't be him.
Maddon has Erik Bedard, Chris Archer and Cesar Ramos lined up to face the defending World Series champion Red Sox, and he can't wait to see what they can do.
"Beautiful," Maddon said. "I love it. I absolutely love it. I love going to those cities. I have always thought that the competition brings out the best in us. We like the competition. It's a good thing to be challenged every day. It's a great thing. I really enjoy it, and I think the players do, too."
Year in and year out since 2008, the Rays have thrived in the American League East, making up in ingenuity, chemistry and deep pitching what they lack in payroll and fans in the stands.
It's no surprise that Maddon refuses to make excuses about having Matt Moore, Alex Cobb and Jeremy Hellickson sidelined. He wouldn't have signed on to replace Lou Piniella if he was afraid of challenges, and he has seen his nurturing style and out-of-the-box thinking rewarded with four trips to the playoffs in the last six seasons.
Had Maddon wanted, he could have landed a job with one of baseball's power franchises a long time ago. But he loves the operation that has been built in Tampa Bay by Rays owner Stuart Sternberg, president Matt Silverman and executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman, and he sees opportunities where others see hardships.
This year, with an 11-15 start, his rotation already stretched thin, and reinforcements not yet coming over the horizon, Maddon has a chance to really work magic.
The starting pitchers are going to decide the Rays' fate, as they usually do.
"The only thing I'll concede is that I've often said this game could be called pitching as opposed to baseball," Maddon said about his team's vulnerability. "Right now, we're not getting the pitching that we normally get. That's a big part of our success, that's the main part of our success. We need to get the group that's out there right now to pitch to more of their capabilities than they've been at this point. I don't want anybody to step up. I want everybody to go out there and be themselves. I think if we can do that, we'll be able to play to a much higher level."
Under Maddon, Tampa Bay has had a habit of finishing strong, winning at least 17 games in September each of the last three seasons. The Rays made up a four-game deficit to the Red Sox with 12 games to play in 2011, winning their last five.
Maddon says that one of the reasons they've been able to close fast is that they've always had strong starting pitching, which has allowed them to keep their bullpen fresh when others were running on fumes. But through Monday, the rotation is 11th in the AL with a 4.60 ERA, and ninth in innings pitched.
Moore, who needed Tommy John surgery after two starts, won't be back until October. Hellickson, who had loose bodies removed from his elbow in an arthroscopic procedure in February, and Cobb, who suffered a strained oblique after throwing seven shutout innings in Cincinnati on April 12, are throwing and could be back in a month to six weeks.
In the meantime, Maddon will hope there are very few more outings like Sunday, when David Price lost to 29-year-old rookie Scott Carroll, who was making his Major League debut for the White Sox. But there was a part of Maddon happy for Carroll, the same part that is always busy trying to figure out ways how to keep Tampa Bay close in what he believes will be a very even fight in the AL East.
"Listen, I think it's my Minor League background, I think it's how I grew up," Maddon said. "A lot of times, when you work in the Minor Leagues, manage in the Minor Leagues, there are times you don't have the best team out there on a nightly basis, but you still believe you're going to win somehow. You've got to figure out how you're going to win that night, whether it's lineup composition, whether it's making sure you use your bullpen properly, maybe it's just by talking to the players in a way that gets them ready. There's a whole bunch of different ways to win on a nightly basis."
The more reliable ones have starting pitchers working into the seventh and eighth innings, however. Rookie Jake Odorizzi lasted only 4 1/3 innings on Monday night, as the White Sox won, 7-3, taking the series three games to one.
Appropriately, the last of Odorizzi's 87 pitches was a check-swing single by Adam Dunn, which rolled harmlessly into left field with the Rays' infield shifted to the right side. Buzzard's luck, although it was overcome by a great play from left fielder Matt Joyce, who made a diving grab to rob Dayan Viciedo and double off Jose Abreu from second base.
Maddon believes the breaks have been going against his team. You're not going to hear him whine about that, or anything else, for that matter, especially not when his players keep making plays like the Joyce catch.
"I'm a big believer that you have to win the battle of inches, and sometimes the inches work against you," Maddon said. "They'll continue to work against you if you give up or say, 'Woe is me,' that we're victims, all that crappy stuff. If you keep saying, 'We believe in this, we're going to continue working at what we do,' the pendulum comes back to your side. That's what I anticipate happening. I'm very confident."
He means it, too.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.