ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (Fred Goodall/AP) Desmond Jennings welcomes the challenge of doing more to help the revamped Tampa Bay Rays remain competitive.
The team may be counting on strong pitching and defense to help them keep pace with defending division champion Baltimore and the rest of the AL East following an offseason of change, but Jennings is banking on doing his part to spark an offense that’s struggled to score runs.READ MORE: SEE IT: Good Samaritan Recalls Moment He Jumped Into Bay To Rescue Toddler After Ocean City Crash
The 28-year-old outfielder helped the Rays reach the playoffs three of the past five seasons. Nevertheless, he’s coming off a disappointing year in which he hit .244 and Tampa Bay finished with a losing record for the first time since 2007.
“You want people to depend on you. You want to be one of those guys they look at and say we have to have him do well to be successful,” Jennings said. “I know I can be that guy. It’s just a matter of going out and doing it.”
The Rays begin the regular season Monday, with right-hander Chris Archer making his first opening-day start. Righty Chris Tillman takes the mound first for the Orioles for the second straight year.
“We’re going to find out a lot real soon,” said rookie manager Kevin Cash, who begins his first season as Joe Maddon’s replacement without four injured pitchers – starters Alex Cobb, Drew Smyly and Matt Moore, plus reliever Jake McGee – who could make a big difference when they return.
Injuries also have forced Orioles manager Buck Showalter to adjust plans.
Baltimore could open with four players – shortstop J. J. Hardy, outfielder David Lough, Infielder/outfielder Jimmy Paredes and catcher Matt Wieters – on the disabled list. First baseman Chris Davis will sit out the opener while serving the final game of a 25-game suspension for amphetamine use without a prescription.
Hardy, Lough and Paredes were sidelined late in spring training, testing the depth of a team that lost slugger Nelson Cruz and outfielder Nick Markakis to free agency after losing to Kansas City in last fall’s AL Championship Series.READ MORE: Baltimore Mayor Announces Pilot Program To Direct Some 911 Calls To Mental Health Professionals
“I knew something was going to come and it’s kind of what we do. It’s kind of who we are, and I think our players kind of rally around it,” Showalter said.
“They’re not going to stop the season for us: `Hold on, let’s stop the season for four days until the Orioles get Hardy back,'” the Baltimore manager added. “It don’t work that way.”
Jennings is a .248 career hitter who hasn’t played up to expectation since breaking into the majors in 2010 and becoming a starter the following season.
The Rays are hoping that moving him from center to left field and inserting him lower in the batting order will help him blossom into the player they envisioned him becoming during a steady rise through the minor leagues.
“I don’t think it really matters where I hit – first, fifth, ninth – it’s all the same. Everybody wants to get on base,” Jennings said. “We all want to hit and score runs and drive them in. … I’m anxious to get out there and see how it goes.”
A solid spring is a start, even if exhibition results generally are meaningless.
Jennings hit .435 in 18 games, going 20 for 46 with three doubles, one homer, three RBI’s, four walks, seven runs scored and two stolen bases.
“I don’t want to let myself get away with being mediocre. … Hitting .240, stealing 15 bags, that’s not what got me to the big leagues, said Jennings, who was limited to just 123 games because of injuries last season.MORE NEWS: Unemployed Workers Rally, Demanding To Know When They Will Get Their Money
“You can talk and say: `Yeah, this is the year, I’m going to do this, do that, get batter,'” he added. “But it’s all irrelevant until you actually go out and do it.”