Smith's speed could jump-start offense in 2018
Outfielder sets table, steals bases as part of plan to disrupt opposing pitchers
DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Rays outfielder Mallex Smith was dancing in anticipation before Thursday's 5-3 win over Toronto. The 24-year-old hadn't seen Grapefruit League action since March 8 because of a hamstring injury.
"Having a nagging injury sideline you is nothing that you ever want, but sometimes it's a part of the game," Smith said. "I'm ready to play, and hopefully I get back into a rhythm before the season starts."
Smith led off and played all nine innings in left field for the Rays. His footwork was also on display on the basepaths, as he went 2-for-5 with a stolen base, on an unseasonably chilly spring day at Dunedin Stadium.
"I needed to know how far I could go right now, and today was a good day to find out," Smith said. "It was a pretty chilly day, and it's pretty cold in April pretty much everywhere we play, so it was a good test."
Smith led off the game with a single up the middle off of Blue Jays lefty Jaime Garcia. In the top of the fifth, Smith caught the entire Jays infield off-guard when he laid down a drag bunt, and outraced the late coverage to first base for his second hit of the day. Smith swiped second, and came around to score on a single by the next batter, Daniel Robertson.
"Speed's my game," Smith said. "The better I can become at paying attention to the game, and taking advantage of what the team is giving me, I'll be OK."
Smith is now batting. 321 with three stolen bases on the spring.
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"When Mallex gets on base, the entire defense has to be aware of where he's at and what havoc he can create," Rays manager Kevin Cash said. "The more times we can get him on base, the better we're going to be."
Smith admitted that with all of the offseason departures from last year's core, this year's Rays are still searching for their identity on offense. With his ability to make things happen with his legs, Smith's speed could prove to be a catalyst for this year's lineup.
"I'm really all about winning. I love to win," Smith said. "I feel like if I perform and do the things that I'm capable of, that will bring a name for itself and bring us some victories, which brings attention to the whole team."
Cash said that he was leaning toward breaking camp with a fifth outfielder as his last bench spot, and that Micah Johnson, who started in center field on Thursday, had established himself as a frontrunner. Cash hedged on saying whether Johnson, who went 0-for-4 on Thursday, would be part of the Opening Day roster.
"Micah has had a tremendous camp for us, and there's no doubt his versatility would help us," Cash said. "I know we've dwelled on the right-handed-hitting guys, because we are so lefty heavy in the outfield, but I don't think we are ready to limit anybody at this point in camp."
Johnson has scored a team-high 10 runs this spring, and is batting .314 with three doubles and a stolen base. Johnson also offers experience at the middle infield positions, as well as all three outfield spots.
"We'd like for that fifth guy to have some versatility," Cash said. "We've got roughly a week for decisions to be made -- less than a week [actually] -- but a lot of time to play stuff out."
Bumps and bruises
Robertson celebrated his 24th birthday with a pair of hits, and a fresh bruise. Robertson, whose mom was in the stands for the game, was plunked by a wayward breaking ball from Garcia in the third after he grounded into a 6-4-3 double play to begin his day. Robertson, who is trying to cement his role as the team's super utility infielder, got the start at shortstop, and finished the game 2-for-4 to push his spring average up to .297.
The Rays will split their squad on Friday, with half the team heading back to Port Charlotte, Fla., to host the Blue Jays at 1:05 p.m. ET, and the other half on the road in Sarasota, Fla., to take on Baltimore at Ed Smith Stadium. That game will also begin at 1:05 p.m. ET. Matt Andriese (0-0, 3.00 ERA), who is likely tabbed for a long relief spot in the bullpen, will get the start against the Jays opposite Toronto's J.A. Happ, with Dan Jennings, Daniel Hudson and Alex Colome scheduled to pitch in relief. Fans can listen to that game via an exclusive audio webcast. Cash will send a series of relievers to the mound, led by Ryan Weber, against Baltimore's Dylan Bundy.