Maddon on Lackey, Shoppach, AL East

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon, his head recently shorn on behalf of a fundraiser for pediatric cancer, touched on a number of topics Sunday, including his relationship with Red Sox pitcher John Lackey, his assessment of Sox catcher Kelly Shoppach and his comfort level with the Rays being cast as favorites in the American League East.

* Maddon was a coach with the Angels when Lackey broke into the big leagues and as a rookie was the Angels’ winning pitcher in Game 7 of the 2002 World Series.

“When he first came up, John was unflappable,’’ Maddon said. “We wanted him pitching the big games. The coaching staff did, the other players did. His rookie season we wanted him out there. He was always that guy for me in Anaheim.

“I don’t know that’s he’s ever been really comfortable in Boston. To what degree his elbow was hurting him, fact [is] it ended up in surgery. John’s a tough guy. He’s not always going to tell you what’s going on. He’s not going to make excuses about physical problems.

“Obviously Boston hasn’t seen the best of John yet. He and I are good friends. I have a lot of respect for him. He and I had a great relationship when we were together with the Angels. We’d go and have a beer together. I enjoyed his company.

“I’m curious to see how it all turns out for him. I hope it turns out well. I consider him a friend and I was a part of some big moments with him, and I have a lot of respect for him.’’

* Maddon was Shoppach’s manager the last two seasons with the Rays.

“Shop, I really thought did a couple things really well,’’ Maddon said. “I thought he blocked well and thought he threw really well last year. I thought he did a better job in both of those things than the previous year. I think he’s a pretty good receiver too.

“The thing I like about Shop is he’s a very calm baseball player. In big moments, he doesn’t get bothered by it whatsoever. He’s always the same guy every day. That’s a strength of his. I think the pitchers like to throw to him.

“Obviously the offense was sporadic, but he came through at the right time last year and he has that in his bat. He’s got big power in his bat. If he gets hot, he can get really streaky.’’

Maddon was asked how long it will take Shoppach to ingratiate himself with the Sox pitching staff.

“He’s a very affable, likable guy, so I think he can relate to [Sox pitchers]. It won’t take him long. He’s very confident in himself, very sure of himself, and I think as a pitcher you like having a catcher who’s that way. I don’t know how he compares to [Jason] Varitek regarding the study; I’ve heard all the legendary academic moments with Varitek getting ready for a game. I don’t know whether he compares on that level. I do know that I think pitchers will enjoy him.’’

Maddon grinned knowingly when told of how Shoppach’s bat went flying into the third-base stands Saturday.

“I really prefer to be in the first-base dugout when he’s hitting,’’ Maddon said. “He’s got a great bat-throwing ability. He definitely took the term, ‘throwing the head of the bat at the ball’ to another level.’’

* Loaded with starting pitching, the Rays are drawing plenty of support as favorites in the AL East.

“They’re a good team, but I don’t know about favorites,’’ Sox manager Bobby Valentine said Sunday. “I wouldn’t want to say anything to slight the Yankees.’’

Valentine, of course, has shown no hesitation to tweak the Yankees.

Here’s what Maddon said on the topic:

“I’m beginning my seventh year here and it’s great to hear, based on where we’ve come from,’’ Maddon said. “I’ve already talked to my players about it. I don’t want us ever to run from expectations. I think it’s wonderful to have expectations. I also believe that high expectations should bring out the best in you. I really want to believe that about any performer.

“It’s just a validation of the fact of the last four years being in the playoffs. I believe you have to approach this with the right mindset. Part of it is to accept it. The other part of it is to really work through it, meaning that you don’t always believe what you’re reading, don’t believe all the press clippings. Don’t believe you can just throw your glove out there and do something, because that’s the moment where everything will absolutely fold on you.

“So there’s a certain amount of humility attached to that. Not false humility, but actual legitimate humility, which is a very strong human quality that permeates things like courage. I don’t want any false humility, either. We feel we are good; let’s go out and prove it.’’