Finding his niche

WASHINGTON – Will Rhymes was drafted out of William Mary in the 27th round of the 2005 draft by the Detroit Tigers. Obviously not a major prospect, he worked his way up the Detroit farm system before making his big league debut last summer.

The diminutive former Tribe star is listed at 5-foot-9, 155 pounds, and hit just one homer in his first 364 at bats in The Show. After seven seasons with the organization, including part of the past two at the Major League level, Rhymes became a free agent after hitting .239 in 29 games last season with Detroit. He had several options, which he did not reveal, before deciding to sign with the Tampa Bay Rays.

“I fit in with their system,” he said in a recent interview before an interleague game with the Washington Nationals. “I love this team and I love this style of play. It is just a fun team to be a part of.”

“I am trying to help us win games and help the team. When you are a role player, playing some second and some third [base], all you can contribute in some way is to help the team win. So that is what I am trying to do,” he added.

Rhymes hit .239 in his first 88 at bats this year for the Rays as a utility infielder with two doubles and seven RBIs. He made the start at third when the Rays began a series at Washington on Tuesday against the Nationals with a 5-4 win. He hit .231 in 91 at bats with Durham, the top farm club of Tampa Bay, before being called up to the Rays on May 1. Rhymes was hitless on Tuesday in Washington.

Earlier this season Rhymes said he got an “absurd number” of texts and calls after he made the ESPN “SportsCenter” highlights May 16. He was hit by a 95 mph pitch in the forearm and then trotted down to first base, and promptly collapsed.

“It was kind of a freak thing,” he said. “As everyone saw, I got hit in the arm pretty good. I kind of passed out as a result of it. Surprisingly it didn’t affect me too badly. My arm was a little numb after that.”

“I came back as soon as I could because a lot of guys were out,” he added.” I tried to do the best I could. I tried to get back in there and get comfortable at the plate. It was cool to see the support. In retrospect, it was a kind of funny incident. It could have been so much worse. We thought I broke my arm. To be out only a few days, I was lucky.”

Rhymes has been following the changes in the CAA, in which VCU just left the Atlantic 10 while ODU and Georgia State will leave after the 2012-13 academic year. None of them will be eligible for league titles in football, basketball and baseball in the coming school year.

“It hurts, obviously. They are a strong program,” he said of VCU. “It kind of seems, from afar, the conference is on a downside since we were playing there. It was a really strong conference then. There were a lot of good players. Even when I was there we lost East Carolina and Richmond. VCU is one of two or three best programs in the CAA, baseball-wise. I hope they can get it back to where it was.”

Rhymes lives in Houston tries to get back to William Mary at least once every off-season, most recently after the 2011 season when he attended the wedding of a college friend. He has also attended golf outings in Williamsburg during the baseball off-season. “I love going back,” he said.

While with Detroit, he was one of several CAA players on the the 40-man roster: Justin Verlander (ODU), Brandon Inge (VCU), Scott Sizemore (VCU), Rhymes (WM) and Casper Wells (Towson). Inge is now with Oakland, Wells is with Seattle and Sizemore played with Oakland last year.

Rich Thompson, a former JMU standout, was called up to the Rays from Durham on Tuesday to give the team another CAA alum.

Rhymes was a teammate on the Tribe with Bill Bray, now a pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds. Rhymes would have been college teammates with Brendan Harris, who has played this year with Colorado Springs in the Rockies’ farm system, if Harris would have returned for his senior year instead of signing with the Cubs in 2001. Rhymes hit .413 as a senior with the Tribe and was a second-team all-CAA player and led the conference in hitting.

Rhymes has lived for several years with his wife in in Northern Virginia, just a few miles south of Nationals Park. While just a few minutes from the home of the Nationals, Rhymes is happy to be with playoff contender Tampa Bay after he was the Opening Day second baseman for Detroit in 2011.

“There were some appealing things out there,” he said. “It was a tough decision. You can’t see into the future. You can only make a decision based on the information that you have. The Rays seemed the most interested and the best fit for me. It has worked out so far and I am really happy with the decision that I made. You never know how things will work out at other places but I am happy here.”

David Driver has covered pro baseball for 20 years.

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