Jennings Expected to Spark Rays Lineup

Jennings had a .356 OBP and stole 20 bases in 2011

There were several additions to the Rays lineup this off-season, but perhaps the most important aspect of the team's re-vamped offense is the fact that left fielder Desmond Jennings will be atop the lineup for a full season. Full story inside...plus the Rays name James Shields the Opening Day starter, injury updates on Evan Longoria, David Price and Luke Scott and Joe Maddon is shaving his head.

INSIDE PITCH

Jennings expected to spark lineup

The headlines of the Rays offseason were the signings of DH Luke Scott and 1B Carlos Pena and the firepower they are expected to add to the lineup.

But the true key may be left fielder Desmond Jennings, who enters his first full season in the big leagues as the catalyst to their batting order.

"I think he's going to be pretty much the catalyst for the offense, and he showed that he has that ability last year," Rays third baseman Evan Longoria said.

"You hate to compare guys to Carl Crawford because it's so tough to compare someone both (in terms of) baseball talent and being athletically gifted. Carl was probably the most gifted player that I've ever played with, but Desmond is right up there. I think he's just a little bit more raw than Carl was when we had him, but I think that can be there. So it's really fun to watch him play.

"I think we're very blessed to have him fill that void that Carl left because those are huge shoes to fill, and I think he's done a great job doing it."

Jennings, 25, said he is humbled to hear such praise but is focused much more on the process of playing every day on a consistent level, somewhere between the sizzling start he had in his first six weeks and the dramatic drop-off over his final four.

Manager Joe Maddon said he feels Jennings was just tired -- physically and mentally -- and is confident he will handle it better this season. "To play that many games under that kind of scrutiny, he's not used to that, combined with whatever he was feeling and having to be that catalyst for us, eventually that can wear you out if you've never done that before," Maddon said. "Coming into this season, he's been stretched mentally. So when he gets to that moment this year he'll be more familiar with it and I think he'll handle it better."



James Shields, who was third in AL Cy Young voting last year, signs autographs for fans last month after a spring training workout in Port Charlotte, FL.

NOTES, QUOTES

Shields named No. 1 starter

--RHP James Shields was named the opening-day starter, reclaiming the honor he held for three seasons before being replaced last season by David Price. Shields was rewarded for his impressive turnaround last season, when he went 16-12, 2.82. "It's definitely gratifying," Shields said. "I put a lot of hard work in last year. To be recognized, to get the opening day nod this year is pretty special."

--LHP David Price was expected to be sidelined several days after sustaining one of the oddest injuries of the spring, the muscles in his neck spasming after he toweled off too vigorously between innings of his March 8 start. Price said he had hurt himself that way twice previously, and it usually takes a few days to clear up. "The towel just catches the back of my head and it pulls my neck forward," he said.

--3B Evan Longoria appeared set to make his first game appearance on March 11 or 12 after needing more time than expected to recover from a bruised right hand. Longoria was hit by a pitch in the March 1 exhibition and expected to miss only a few days, but the swelling lingered and the Rays wanted to be cautious.

--Manager Joe Maddon's hair color and style has been a popular topic of conversation around the Tampa Bay area. Now he's going to go bald, in an effort to raise money for the Pediatric Cancer Foundation and the Vincent Lecavalier Pediatric Cancer and Blood Disorders Center at All Children's Hospital. Maddon will shave his head before the March 15 game, and is encouraging other players, coaches and team officials to join him.

"It's under the heading: fortune favors the bald," Maddon said. Donations can be made through pcfcutforacure.org.

--New DH Luke Scott said his recovery from July surgery on his right shoulder has gone well, but seven days into the exhibition season he had not played in a game. Scott said the problem is that his mechanics are off since he didn't get to work out as usual during the winter, and he expects to be ready for opening day.

BY THE NUMBERS: 2.36 -- James Shields' improvement in ERA from 2010 to 2011, third largest since the start of divisional play.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "David might need better technique when it comes to toweling himself down. He's been doing it for 20-some years now but apparently doesn't have it down yet." -- Manager Joe Maddon, after LHP David Price had to leave a start due to neck spasms from toweling off too vigorously between innings.

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