ST. PETERSBURG -- With the Rays enduring injury upon injury early on this season, Matt Joyce knew he would get more opportunities in the starting lineup, especially against left-handed pitching. So far, the 2011 American League All-Star has done everything he can to take advantage of those chances.
"I hope so," Joyce said. "If not, I don't know what else I have to do."
Joyce carried a .295/.409/.545 batting line with nine homers into Sunday's series finale against the Orioles. His .409 on-base percentage ranks third in the American League behind Paul Konerko (.447) and Josh Hamilton (.417), and he has posted a .277/.382/.426 line against lefties to complement his .303 average and 1.016 OPS against right-handers.
Rays manager Joe Maddon said Joyce's success against southpaws has been a product of his patience at the plate: He's swinging at strikes, taking balls and using the same approach against lefties and righties. Maddon said Joyce used to be ahead of left-handed offspeed pitches, while letting fastballs go by him.
It's also helped that Joyce has seen more left-handed pitching this season. Through 56 games, Joyce already has more than half as many plate appearances against lefties (56) as he did all of last season (101), when he posted a .217/.287/.370 batting line against southpaws.
"That was one of those situations where I realized I would get a chance a little bit more against lefties. I was just looking forward to it. I really was," Joyce said. "I'm excited to get the opportunity. I'm trying to have good at-bats every time up. That's all you can do. Try to hit the ball hard, get a good pitch to hit, keep it simple. I'm getting a little more comfortable, a little more confident."
Maddon said Joyce should see even more starts against lefties going forward, given how well he's hit against them so far. In addition to his hitting, Maddon has praised Joyce's improved baserunning and his underrated outfield defense, two areas that Joyce hadn't spent much time working on before Tampa Bay acquired him from Detroit in December 2008.
"We've talked about him becoming more of a complete player over the last couple years," Maddon said. "He has worked on his entire game. He's not just a hitter anymore."
Zobrist, Pena face different struggles at plate
ST. PETERSBURG -- When Rays manager Joe Maddon looks at Ben Zobrist and Carlos Pena, he sees two slumping hitters with completely different problems at the plate.
With Zobrist, who has just eight hits in his last 55 at-bats, Maddon sees a player locked in what he calls the "maybe mode," where he's neither aggressive nor patient enough. Zobrist grounded into a double play on the first pitch of a key, bases-loaded situation on Saturday afternoon, lowering his average on the year to .207.
Zobrist has gone a career-high 57 straight at-bats without an extra-base hit, with his last double coming on May 15 in Toronto and his most recent homer a day earlier. Maddon noted that Zobrist's swing hasn't looked as aggressive and loose as normal, likely a sign that he needs to simplify his approach.
"He'll get it back, of course he will. He's in the 'tweener stage, the maybe mode," Maddon said on Saturday. "That's what I'm kind of seeing out of him, as opposed to just staying on the pitch he hits the best, the fastball, and just committing to it. I think he might be overthinking it just a little bit right now."
While Zobrist needs to be more aggressive, Maddon said Pena needs to rediscover the patient approach that helped him hit .286 with a .900 OPS in April. While Pena is still drawing plenty of walks and owns a .342 on-base percentage despite his .202 average, he only has six hits in his last 48 at-bats.
Maddon said the first baseman is swinging at more pitches outside of the strike zone than he was earlier in the season -- rather than just accepting his walks. When he gets back to doing that, Maddon said, he'll start hitting, as well.
"If they want to walk him, let them walk him," Maddon said. "I don't say go up there looking for walks. But if the pitcher wants to do it, permit him to walk you."
Evan Longoria (partially torn left hamstring) was working with third-base coach Tom Foley before Sunday's series finale against the Orioles, moving laterally to scoop balls Foley rolled toward him at third base. Maddon said on Saturday that Longoria should be able to start a Minor League rehab assignment in mid-June.
Outfielder Desmond Jennings (left knee sprain) had a scheduled day off on Saturday during his rehab assignment with Triple-A Durham. Jennings is scheduled to play on Sunday and Monday, then rejoin the Rays in New York.
Maddon will golf in the annual Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center Celebrity Golf Classic at the Montclair Golf Club in West Orange, N.J., on Monday with an 11 a.m. shotgun start.
Joyce will join Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano and outfielder Curtis Granderson at the MLB Fan Cave on Tuesday for a press event revealing the first All-Star Game balloting update.