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Gathright adds a weapon
The Rays outfielder sees bunting as a new way to utilize speed.
By DAMIAN CRISTODERO
Published March 4, 2006
[Times photo: James Borchuck]
Joey Gathright uses his improved bunting technique in the third inning against Toronto.
ST. PETERSBURG - There was no doubt Joey Gathright would try to bunt for a base hit - was there?
He tried twice during Thursday's exhibition opener. He has been candid he wants to do it more.
Why wouldn't the speedy Devil Rays centerfielder give it a shot to lead off Friday's game with the Blue Jays at Progress Energy Park?
"I'm going to bunt," Gathright said before Tampa Bay's 4-2 victory. "I'm going to bunt a lot this year and this spring no matter where I go.
The thing is, Gathright doesn't want to go anywhere, especially back to Triple-A Durham. But with fierce competition for jobs in the outfield, Gathright needs a hook, something to catch manager Joe Maddon's eye.
Dropping a few bunts to get on base, where Gathright's jaw-dropping speed can create runs by distracting pitchers and putting pressure on fielders, seems a natural.
Gathright said he began during the winter to work on technique, and is soaking up lessons from special instructor Jimy Williams, whom Gathright said taught him things about bunting he never knew.
"I'm going to start this spring and just carry it into the regular season," Gathright said. "If I do that, I'm going to get a lot more hits, a lot more easy hits."
"Joey," Maddon said, "can be an absolute force."
Why hasn't Gathright, 24, previously mastered this skill? Not even he can answer.
Gathright, who it is said can go from home to first in 3.3 seconds, said he bunted regularly in Durham. But after he was called up July 3, "I got away from it for some stupid reason."
Gathright said bunting is part of a larger effort to "get myself together as a complete player."
He said he tries to hit to all fields during batting practice, focusing on the top of the ball to keep from hitting easily caught flys.
Still, Gathright, whose 20 steals last season led AL rookies, said bunting will be the catalyst that raises last season's .276 average.
Gathright said Williams taught him how to deaden the ball by holding the bat softer in his hands, and how better bat position will help him drop bunts to both sides of the field.
"What I'm trying to do is expand his skill level so he can get his legs in play," Williams said. "The more successful he is at bunting, the more runs he has a chance to score, and that's what his focus should be."
It doesn't always work. Gathright flubbed his one bunt attempt against the Jays. But that doesn't change the bigger picture.
"I want him to look like a run when he comes to the plate," Maddon said, stealing an old description of Paul Molitor. "He should look like a run the moment he steps in the batters box because he's got the ability to be a run every time he goes up there."
In an Aug.5 game against the Angels, for whom Maddon was bench coach, Gathright turned a single into a double and scored on a throwing error when pitcher Paul Byrd tried to pick him off.
In the three-game series, Gathright was 4-for-13 with two runs, a triple, a double, a steal and an RBI.
"The lineup card would come over and I'd see his name and I'd say, "C---,' " Maddon said. "He gave you a lot to think about in terms of preparation."
"That was me on a typical basis in the minor leagues," Gathright said. "I want to do that every day in the big leagues. If I bunt and do all the things I need to do, everything will come together."
Whether it be for the Rays or another team. The Marlins, long believed to be interested, scouted Friday's game. Gathright showed the effect he can have.
Looking for a bunt, the Blue Jays played well in at first and third. Gathright smacked the ball through the hole on the left side of the infield.
"But a guy like him, if he (bunts) the ball down in a decent spot, even though they know he's going to do it, they still can't throw him out," Maddon said.
Gathright, though, didn't mind planting a little doubt.
"I bunted twice Thursday," he said before Friday's game. "I might try to swing twice today."