Birds and fun in the clubhouse turning into victories

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With Joe Maddon managing the Rays, there’s never a dull moment.

First, on Wednesday, a promotional giveaway of a gnome (rather than a bobblehead) in Maddon’s likeness received overwhelming response. There were long lines outside Tropicana Field beforehand, and the gnomes were selling for as much as $55 on eBay afterward.

“You always aspire to become a bobblehead, but to become a gnome is even beyond expectations,” Maddon told reporters. “That part of it truly is hard to wrap your mind around.”

Maddon, meanwhile, was concerned the Rays were too tense during their 2-7 road trip. So, when they returned home this past week, he arranged a series of pregame “diversions” during the homestand.

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As described by Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times, it went like this:

• Saturday: A DJ, known as DJ Fresh, set up in the clubhouse.

• Sunday: A magician performed card tricks in the clubhouse.

• Monday: The diversion was actually doing baseball work on the field.

• Tuesday: A white umbrella cockatoo named Mindy was brought over from Sunken Gardens. Maddon walked around the clubhouse with the bird in hand, then had it perched on his shoulder while he did his pregame media session on the field.

• Wednesday: Two South African penguins were brought over from the Florida Aquarium. They were allowed to roam around the clubhouse and were “introduced” to the players by their two handlers.

“A lot of times it gets confused when things aren’t going well,” Maddon told Topkin. “It’s not because your guys aren’t working hard enough or don’t care enough. Sometimes it’s just not working. So let’s go and take the other road less traveled, which would be the one with birds in your clubhouse.”

Rays outfielder Matt Joyce, formerly with the Tigers, was asked what Detroit manager Jim Leyland would have brought in as a diversion under similar circumstances.

“We had a lot of Marlboro cigarettes in the dugout,” Joyce replied.

Oh, the Rays went 5-1 on the homestand.

Notes and quotes

• One reason for Stephen Strasburg’s 1-4 record is his struggles in the first inning. He has a 10.80 ERA in the first with a .360 opponents’ average, compared to 1.85/.186 in the second through seventh.

• Most analysts felt the Mariners would select Rice star infielder Anthony Rendon with the second overall choice in the 2011 draft. They went with Virginia left-hander Danny Hultzen instead.

Rendon, taken that year by the Nationals at No. 6 overall, has made it up to the big leagues, getting called up from Class AA Harrisburg to replace injured Ryan Zimmerman at third base.

It has been a rocky debut for the 22-year-old Rendon, who was 2 for 15 with five strikeouts in his first four games. He also was charged with two errors.

Nats manager Davey Johnson and GM Mike Rizzo have been clear that Rendon, no matter how well he plays, will head back to the minors when Zimmerman comes off the DL.

“I don’t care if he hits .900,” Johnson said. “He’s not going to beat out Ryan Zimmerman.”

• Yes, they keep a stat on everything in baseball. For instance, earlier this year, Yankees DH Ben Francisco hit fifth, followed by catcher Francisco Cervelli.

That sent statistician Diane Firstman scurrying to research how often a player has been followed by another player with the same first name as his last name.

Turns out it’s happened just 130 times since 1916. And there’s always a local angle: The last time was April 12, 2011, when Brendan Ryan hit ahead of Ryan Langerhans for the Mariners.

• The struggling White Sox could be one of the biggest sellers at the trade deadline. Among the veteran talent that might be dumped are pitchers Jake Peavy and Gavin Floyd, outfielder Alex Rios, relievers Matt Thornton and Jesse Crain, and even elder statesman Paul Konerko.

David Ortiz came off the DL with a vengeance, going 11 for 20 with four extra-base hits and five RBI in his first five games. But what got his teammates most excited was Ortiz’s friskiness in going from first to third on a single by Mike Carp on Thursday night. That was a great sign his sore heels are, well, healed.

“Everyone was screaming and yelling,” starting pitcher Clay Buchholz told The Boston Globe.

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