Nobody's pushover

Rays plow over another catcher then stand their ground as Yanks take issue.

By Marc Topkin, Times Staff Writer
Published March 9, 2008

TAMPA - The Rays are trying to build a reputation this spring as a team that plays hard and aggressive at all times.

And the big, bad Yankees, of all people, don't like it.

First-year manager Joe Girardi said so after the Rays' 4-1 exhibition win Saturday. To which Rays manager Joe Maddon replied, essentially, too bad.

Girardi was upset about a play in the ninth inning, when Rays infielder Elliot Johnson crashed shoulder-first into catcher Francisco Cervelli at the plate, fracturing Cervelli's right wrist.

Girardi said that type of play was "uncalled for" and inappropriate for spring play.

"I'm all for playing hard, but I don't think it's the time when you run over a catcher in spring training," Girardi said. "I don't understand it. It happens in the season and, as a catcher, I understand that. But in spring training, I don't believe in it."

"I never read that rule before," Maddon responded Saturday night. "We try to play the game the same way on March 8 as we do on June 8. We don't differentiate between a spring training game and a regular-season game. We play it hard and we play it right every day.

"And I do believe the good people of New York City would want to see the Yankees do the same thing to a Rays catcher under similar circumstances."

Girardi had a clearly different view - noting that Carl Crawford "ran over" Houston catcher Humberto Quintero in Wednesday's exhibition to which Houston manager Cecil Cooper had no problem - and took what seemed to be a swipe at Maddon.

"I've always known that you don't do it," Girardi said. "I know kids are playing aggressive and playing hard - that's how you want them to play - but maybe if it happens too much, you should mention something."

Johnson, a minor-leaguer trying to improve his standing as a Rays prospect, said he didn't think he had much choice in a split-second decision but to crash into Cervelli, the Yankees' top catching prospect, because he was blocking the plate. The Rays were leading 3-1 at the time when Johnson tried to score on a Willy Aybar double, though he was out when Cervelli hung on to the ball.

"I'm trying to show these guys what I can do," Johnson said, surrounded by a dozen New York reporters in the Rays clubhouse. "I'm just trying to score the run. That's my job. And looking back at it, I'd have to say I'd probably do the same thing."

Johnson, who turns 24 today, expressed concern when told Cervelli had been taken to St. Joseph's Hospital.

Before he went, Cervelli, who had been hit by a David Price pitch earlier, didn't seem nearly as upset as his manager, saying the play was "part of the game" and quipped: "Maybe (Johnson) wants to make the team."

Maddon called it "a good, aggressive play" and said: "I loved the hard ball right there. We're playing it hard, we're playing it right."

And they get to play it right against the Yankees three more times this spring, including Wednesday in St. Petersburg, and 18 times during the regular season.

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com.

Rays vs. Reds

1:05 today, Progress Energy Park, St. Petersburg, 1250-AM

Other area teams- Yankees at Twins, 1:05, Fort Myers - Blue Jays at Phillies, 1:05, Clearwater