Alan Dell

Commentary: Mr. March Rodriguez burns to play every day for Rays

Sean Rodriguez was a man on fire last spring.

He couldn’t do any wrong and, for those 30 days in March, was one of the Grapefruit League’s toughest outs.

In two dozen exhibition games, Rodriguez pounded the ball for a .460 batting average with six homers in a performance that wouldn’t allow Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon to forget him.

It earned the 25-year-old a spot on the Rays roster, and he did a commendable job filling in wherever he could in becoming an integral part of the Maddon shuffle.

Now Rodriguez wants more. Who can blame him?

Expecting him to duplicate his numbers from last spring would be asking a lot.

But even if Rodriguez’s bat cools down, the fire still burns inside him.

That can be a contagious thing that could help any clubhouse, particularly one as young as the Rays’.

That’s what endeared him so much to Maddon and made him a favorite of every grown man who yearns to play big league baseball.

Rodriguez was the guy they could relate to.

“Last spring I was thinking of trying to do whatever I could to impress everyone so I could make the team and to try and show them everything I had versatility-wise,” Rodriguez said. “That is very hard to do in the spring, and I was fortunate to do it. This spring, I am still thinking along those lines, but more in a sense that I am trying to establish myself as an everyday guy.”

Rodriguez hoped to be the everyday guy at second base, though some offseason acquisitions might have altered that possibility.

Last season, the Miami native had a career high 343 at-bats and turned in numbers that make you think there might more to this kid than you can see in his scrapbook.

He hit a respectable .251 with a respectable nine homers and scored a respectable 53 runs. His 13 stolen bases in 16 attempts project into something special. The downside to Rodriguez was his 97 strikeouts with only 21 walks.

Rodriguez played shortstop in the Rays’ 12-6 loss to Baltimore on Tuesday, but it’s at second base where he should see most of his action, though Maddon said things have changed since Tampa acquired Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez.

“What I am hoping for from Sean is a lot of what you saw last year, but with him creating more plate discipline,” Maddon said. “He is an excellent defender and a very good baserunner and as he gets better at plate discipline he is going to take off as a hitter. He moved around well at shortstop today.”

Reid Brignac has been named heir apparent at shortstop with Jason Bartlett gone, and Rodriquez would like to be the other half of the Rays everyday tandem on the middle of the infield.

Maddon has other thoughts, though Rodriguez is still a big part of his plans.

“He will play a lot of second base,” Maddon said. “We have a lot of things we do platoon-wise and the fact that Manny and Damon are here has created some different kind of maneuvering with our infielders. Sean has to accept more walks and with that probably will cut down on his strikeouts and not chase pitches out of the zone and that kind of stuff.”

Maddon: Sonnanstine OK

It was not a good day for Andy Sonnanstine, who the Rays are hoping can help stabilize a bullpen that was nearly depleted during the offseason.

The right-hander was tagged for five homers and six hits in two innings, but Maddon said he is not worried.

“He had a tough day, but from my perspective he had normal kind of stuff and was just throwing to bad spots,” Maddon said. “He was hitting all of his spots in the bullpen, but obviously did not do that in the game. But he is healthy and I am not concerned. I have seen him pitch like that from the past on the side and normally he gets good results. It’s his first time out and I am not going to be very judgmental the first time through. He was fine health-wise afterwards and that is all I am concerned about.”