|Young giving Devil Rays reason to be optimistic|
|Written by Admin|
|Wednesday, 11 July 2007 10:36|
``I don't really care about myself. I'm just trying to win,'' the 21-year-old outfielder said. ``We're not in first place, we're not above .500, so it doesn't matter what I do.''
The Devil Rays lost 13 of 14 games heading into the All-Star break, a stretch including a major league-worst 11-game losing streak that dropped them into last place in the AL East with baseball's worst record.
At 34-53, and with the toughest part of their schedule still ahead, the Devil Rays easily could be facing another 100-loss season - even if manager Joe Maddon maintains the team is a lot closer to being competitive than many people realize.
Young is one of the reasons.
The top pick in the 2003 draft leads all major league rookies in hits (96), RBIs (48) and games played (87), and his batting average has climbed from .222 to .278 over the past six weeks with help from a career-best 13-game hitting streak from June 15-28.
``His numbers projected out are pretty good if he's able to do all that, and I don't see why he can't,'' Maddon said.
``I really don't think he's really gotten super hot yet either, which he is going to. He's been kind of steady in his own way. I think he's going to hit a point where he gets very toasty, and then you'll see all those things jump a little bit. He's been doing it very quietly.''
Young has made an impact defensively, too, with stellar play in right field until an injury to Rocco Baldelli and rookie Elijah Dukes' problems off the field prompted Maddon to move Young to center field, where he's started 23 of the past 24 games.
The transition has taken extra work. Except for the late innings of some spring training games while he was a minor leaguer, the younger brother of Washington Nationals All-Star Dmitri Young had not played center field since high school in California.
``You just want to make sure you don't have one of those ESPN bloopers out there,'' he said. ``I take pride in defense ... and will do whatever it takes to be decent out there.''
Actually, relief may be on the way.
B.J. Upton, who's missed the past month with a strained left quad, could return from the disabled list as early as Thursday, when the Devil Rays begin a four-game series against the New York Yankees.
Upton, another young player who's shown sign of realizing his potential, was hitting .320 with nine homers and 31 RBIs as the primary second baseman before going on the DL. He likely will move to center field when he returns, allowing Young to take his powerful throwing arm back to right.
That, however, will not solve all that ails Tampa Bay, which continues to be dogged by poor pitching.
The bullpen has been shoddy and recently lost its most effective performer, closer Al Reyes, who converted 17 of 18 save opportunities before going on the 15-day disabled list with a mild rotator cuff strain.
James Shields (7-4, 3.82 ERA) has been the most consistent starting pitcher, while Scott Kazmir (5-6, 4.41) continues to struggle with high pitch counts that have undermined his bid to revert to the form that made him an All-Star last season.
All five of Kazmir's victories have come on the road, and the left-hander hasn't won at Tropicana Field in more than a year - going 0-4 in 14 starts since pitching a two-hit, complete game shutout against Boston on July 3, 2006.
Still, there are reasons to be encouraged.
The Devil Rays are 15-11 against opponents that made the playoffs last season and 19-42 against everyone else. The record would be better if the pitching staff weren't on pace to become the first group to lead the AL in strikeouts while also compiling the highest ERA.
Rookie Andy Sonnanstine has had some nice outings since being added to the rotation last month, and top pitching prospect Jeff Niemann is doing well enough at Triple-A Durham that he could be in the majors soon, too.
Rookie third baseman Akinori Iwamura has played well, and the Devil Rays got unexpected lifts from shortstop Brendan Harris (.310, 8 HR, 39 RBIs) and first baseman Carlos Pena (.287, 20 HRs, 52 RBIs) in the first half.
``It's coming around,'' Young said of the progress the team is making. ``We just have to stay consistent.''