Dave D'Onofrio's Sox Beat: Fuld a Ray of sunshine
BY THE TIME Sam Fuld stepped between the lines at Fenway Park on Monday night, his team had already scored all three of its runs, Matt Moore had already logged eight magnificent innings, and Tampa Bay needed only three more outs to beat the Red Sox.
For the Phillips Exeter product, it marked the 22nd time this season that he entered a game in the ninth inning or later, and the 25th time his appearance didn't include a visit to the batter's box — but it was the 50th time he was on the field to celebrate a win with his Rays.
And in a season Fuld admits has been somewhat frustrating, wins always have a way of making everything easier.
"It's been a frustrating year individually," he said, "but, you know, when I step back and look at it and put things in perspective, I'm glad to be here and glad to be part of this great team. It's so much fun to be part of this ballclub.
"I've had some trying moments this year individually, but when we win as frequently as we do, it makes it a lot easier to deal with."
Lately the Rays have been winning with a frequency unseen in the American League since 2006, with the 18-2 mark they took into Tuesday night the AL's best since the Twins won 19 times in a 20-game stretch seven years ago. Thanks to that surge, they took the field with a chance to move into first place by beating the Red Sox — just a month to the day after briefly being banished to the AL East basement. And Fuld played a role in 15 of those victories.
The frustration, though, comes from the offensive performance that is part of the reason he hasn't had a bigger role. In total he'd played 75 games this season, but through Monday he had only 132 plate appearances, which has made it difficult to recover from starting the year 2-for-his-first-26.
He didn't get his batting average above .200 until July 6, then it fell below the Mendoza Line again four days later, and was at .198 going into Tuesday — when the left-handed hitting Fuld wasn't in the starting lineup against Boston southpaw Jon Lester. He started only 30 of Tampa's first 101 games.
"It's difficult not getting a steady amount of at-bats," he said. "I just don't have the offensive performance I would've liked, but that's baseball. It's the hardest thing to do in sports, to come off the bench and play, or just play sparingly — though it's something I've had success with in the past and I've just got to keep being positive and grind it out."
Fuld's positivity came through in his smile as he spoke in Fenway's visitors' clubhouse, his attitude an acknowledgement of his team-first approach and of his confidence that he can do the job as Joe Maddon continues to call upon him. The Durham native did hit .429 off the bench in 2011, then .286 last year, and his repeated deployment as a defensive replacement says everything about what the manager still thinks of his glove in the outfield.
"The game is such a roller-coaster ride that you have to enjoy the moments when things are going really well, but when things aren't going as well as you like you just have to understand that's part of the game," Fuld said. "I think I have a pretty good perspective, and I don't get too down, and I'm happy to contribute any way I can."
It's easier to have that perspective, too, when the team's goals are in sight. And the Rays' are now in plain view. Fuld said this is the time of year when players start thinking about the postseason, start paying attention to the standings, and his fun-loving team is getting more excited about the possibility of getting back to the playoffs for the first time since 2011.
"If we get in, I think we have as good a shot as anybody," Fuld said, and what's particularly exciting about all that for the 31-year-old Granite Stater is that players like him have a chance to be big-time difference makers in October. Come that time of year, guys who can steal a base, or save a late-game run defensively, or come through with a pinch hit tend to see their importance magnified under the postseason microscope — and Fuld could well be in any of those positions if Tampa gets to the playoffs.
First, though, they've got a couple more games in Boston. And Fuld was planning to do some sightseeing while he's in town, since most of his visits here as a kid were exclusively to Fenway to watch the Sox.
Because the series featured four night games he wasn't planning to have time to visit New Hampshire, though he was able to get up there in April, when the Rays had an off-day built into their stay. He visited with his family in Durham, where his father is a dean at the University of New Hampshire, and he stopped by Phillip Exeter to practice with the baseball team while celebrating the 42nd and final season of coach Bill Dennehy.
He and the prep schoolers worked out, they hung out, and the kids asked questions and got autographs from the big leaguer. "It was cool," said Fuld — unsurprisingly, given his penchant for enjoying his time on a baseball field, regardless of when or under what circumstances it comes.
"Especially the last month or so, it's been really fun," he said. "On a team level we're right where we want to be. We're playing great baseball. Everybody's smiling. We're just feeling good."
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.