Rays' batting order taking shape

Rays' batting order taking shape

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Rays manager Joe Maddon has always longed to have an everyday lineup: a starting nine that players and fans could recite off the top of their heads -- long before the lineup was posted -- and be correct.

Currently, the Rays are closer than ever to having that group, with Akinori Iwamura settling in at the leadoff spot, followed by Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena and B.J. Upton, with Dioner Navarro and Jason Bartlett assuming the eighth and ninth spots. The fifth, sixth, and seventh spots as the only areas not yet settled.

The first three spots of the lineup are somewhat of an oddity in that all three hit left-handed. Maddon said it's not that big of a deal since all three hit left-handers well and there is no dominant left-handed reliever in the American League.

Evaluating the lineup, some are prone to wonder why Crawford, the perennial stolen-base champion, isn't in the leadoff spot. Crawford said he's not against hitting leadoff; he just likes hitting second better.

"I hate being 0-1 [in the count] at the start of every game," Crawford said. "I know it's a small thing, but it just seems like you're down one strike to start the game every time. In the leadoff spot, that's what you're supposed to do. I'm such an aggressive hitter that I'm not patient enough to be in the one-spot."

Conversely, Iwamura likes the slot.

"My job right now is to get on base, because I can count on the hitters behind me to drive me in," Iwamura said. "I'm very proud of being a leadoff hitter. ... My first time at bat, I want everybody to see what the pitcher has."

Nobody likes the Rays' lineup more than Pena, who understands better than anybody that he's in a good slot between Crawford and Upton.

"That's a very important thing," Pena said. "I have Crawford in front of me. I want him in front of me. If I hit one in the gap, he's going to score. From second, forget about it, he's going to score. It makes you confident. So you do your job -- just see the ball and hit the ball.

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"When you've got a guy like B.J. behind you, I know how pitchers respect him, because he's got a great eye. He's a disciplined hitter. He's not going to swing at bad pitches. And the older he gets, the better he's going to get. So I feel like you've got to come to me. You don't want to pitch to me, fine, I'll go to first base and you can pitch to B.J. So it's a great feeling to know you have someone like B.J. behind you that the other team has to be careful with."

Pena was the team's MVP in 2007 after hitting .282 with 46 home runs and 121 RBIs. Some doubt whether he can repeat that feat in 2008, but consider what Pena did in 2007 with Upton behind him and the prospect of a repeat looks more promising. Upton hit behind Pena in 36 games in 2007 and Pena hit .333, 18 home runs and 40 RBIs in those games. Project those numbers to 162 games and it's scary.

For his part, Upton doesn't seem too concerned about where he hits. Ask him if he's comfortable in the cleanup spot and he shrugs his shoulders.

"Yeah, I guess," Upton said. "It doesn't matter to me."

Meanwhile, Maddon can't say enough good things about having the same lineup -- or a semblance of the same thing -- every day.

"I like the idea of the same lineup every day as often as possible," Maddon said. "You have some platoon situations that will impact it on occasion, but when you have the same guys every day, you pretty much have a good idea of how you're going to be pitched to on a daily basis also."

The fifth, sixth and seventh spots in the order will go to the right fielder, the DH and the third baseman, which could be something along the lines of Jonny Gomes, Cliff Floyd and Evan Longoria -- if Longoria makes the team out of camp.

The No. 5, 6 and 7 spots "should be relatively the same," Maddon said. "There will be some things based on right-left matchups, that sort of thing. But one through four should remain solid. Five, six, seven is solid in a sense, except for a platoon, then Navvy and Bartlett.

"I like a guy in the [No. 9] hole who has some speed who can turn it back over to the No. 1 hole; it's circular. It just doesn't drop off at the end. So that's kind of nice."

Sounds like a plan. Pencil it in on your lineup card.

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.