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Dillon knows his role as Rays' 25th man

Dillon knows his role with Rays

ST. PETERSBURG -- Every game around the fifth inning, Joe Dillon gets up off the Tampa Bay bench and begins stretching, whether he knows he's going to get in to play or not. By the sixth inning, he's behind the Rays dugout taking batting practice, despite the fact that opportunities for him to hit this season have come few and far between.

But Dillon, the proverbial 25th player on Tampa Bay's roster and a utility man who has struggled to get utilized, stays ready. He never knows when the call may come for him to play.

On Tuesday, that call came in the bottom of the eighth inning in a tie game against the Red Sox, when Dillon was brought in to pinch-run for Willy Aybar at second base.

Two innings later, Dillon was at the plate taking his first live cuts in an actual game since July 21. He promptly took a pitch from Ramon Ramirez and blooped it into center field for a single -- his ninth hit in 30 at-bats in a season that has seemed both exhilarating and endless for the 34-year-old.

"That was huge, man," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "If you're around the guy, he's upbeat every day, he stays ready every day, he works every day. I'm telling you, it didn't really surprise me."

Though Dillon's playing time has been sporadic -- he has been on the roster since May 26, yet appeared in only 15 games -- his preparation is not. He takes daily batting practice with the zest of an All-Star slugger, often drawing attention from teammates for his consistent swing. And every game, no matter the situation, he starts warming up in the later innings, heads into the batting cage and waits for the few moments Maddon calls his name.

"It's easy to say I haven't had an at-bat in a couple weeks, so I'm not supposed to get a hit," Dillon said. "But sometimes that's how the situation dictates itself. You go however long between at-bats, but you've got to prepare like you're going to play -- and then try to take advantage of it."

Dillon, who began the season with Oakland at its Triple-A affiliate in Sacramento, has long been overlooked as a utility player bouncing around baseball's waiver wire -- in America and abroad. He spent one year in Mexico and another in Japan. He had a brief retirement in 2003 due to back trouble. And when he was the "player to be named" in the deal that sent him to Tampa Bay in early May, it seemed fitting considering his career-long anonymity.

Nonetheless, the swing he honed as a college star at Texas Tech and in the Minor Leagues for over a decade has not left him, even as he endures frustrating hours on the bench.

"He's a pro. All his life, all he's done is hit," Rays first baseman Carlos Pena said. "I have the utmost respect for him as a hitter, and in fact, I talk to him about hitting sometimes. I know how good of a hitter he is."

Rays second baseman Ben Zobrist, a former bench regular himself, said he has a running joke with Dillon about how much he earns per at-bat because of how sparse his hitting opportunities have been.

When Dillon's single dropped in on Tuesday, Zobrist had a quick comment.

"I said, 'Worth every penny, buddy,'" Zobrist joked.

"On this team, we know that everybody on the bench is capable of doing great things, but he especially keeps everything loose in the clubhouse and takes his role very well, better than most," Zobrist said. "He really handles it like a pro."

His teammates credit how well Dillon has stayed patient as his playing time has wavered. As frustrating as it may be to bide his time, Dillon does well to keep things in perspective.

The at-bats may not always come, but when they do, as on Tuesday, it's his job to hit.

"Obviously I'd love to play every day," Dillon said. "I don't know anybody that wouldn't. But the situation dictates that I'm not going to, I understand that. I just try to prepare the best I can to help this team win in any fashion."

Zach Schonbrun is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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