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Jonny DeLuca has been very good for the Rays. He’s a lot of fun, too

ST. PETERSBURG — The Claire’s store at the far end of the mall in Midland, Michigan, tucked between Target and the food court, is an odd spot for a signpost in Rays outfielder Jonny DeLuca’s career.

But it was there, in June 2022, that DeLuca accessorized his look — and accelerated his progress to the major leagues.

Frustrated with his play to that point for the Dodgers’ Class A Great Lakes team, with a .204 average and .711 OPS, DeLuca told Loons hitting coach Dylan Nasiatka that if he didn’t win Midwest Player of the Week honors he was going to get an ear pierced.

A slight swing adjustment helped, but a 4-for-17 week didn’t earn him any awards.

So off DeLuca went to Claire’s, where the primary clientele is teenage girls and young women. He walked out with a stud in his left ear that he soon would swap for a gold hoop.

The new look was a hit. Lots of them, actually.

DeLuca went 10-for-22 (with seven extra-base hits) over the next six games and won the league’s weekly award. Then he repeated his performance (10-for-22, with six doubles and a homer) the following week and again won the award.

There was a bigger reward, too, as the Dodgers promoted him to Double-A Tulsa for the rest of the season. Even better, that November they added him to their 40-man roster, setting the stage for his June 2023 big-league debut.

“I’ve never known Jonny to lie, but when he told me (about the earring) I didn’t think he was going to through with it. I really didn’t,” Nasiatka recalled.

“But he showed up with a little hoop or something, and it was great. The guys, the staff, we had a good time with it. Jonny had a good time with it. And then he absolutely raked for two weeks and got called up to Double A. So it was great.”

It wasn’t the only time DeLuca, 25, set out to improve his game and did so. Coaches who helped him on the way to the majors tell many stories of his work ethic, persistence and unbridled determination.

“That’s Jonny D,” said Doug Latta, who runs a hitting facility near DeLuca’s Southern California hometown. “He’s a lot of fun to be around. But I don’t want people to ever underestimate his drive, and his belief. … You can’t tell him, ‘You can’t do that,’ because he will find a way to do it. People talk about grit and determination. … He’s got a good work ethic, and his focus is real. And he goes about his day-to day-business as well as anybody.”

DeLuca showed that in 2020, when the minor-league season was canceled due to the pandemic. He worked with Latta at his Ball Yard facility and with another private instructor, Craig Wallenbrock.

A light-hitting, good-fielding, fast-running switch-hitter out of Oregon who was drafted by the Dodgers in the 25th round in 2019, DeLuca decided he would go back to batting only from his natural right-handed side as part of a calculated decision to add power.

“I knew I could do it when I was thinking about it,” he said. “I was able to really work on it during COVID, on some mechanical stuff combined with putting on some mass and weight. So, kind of just the combo of those two.”

The decision was all his.

“The Dodgers hated it,” DeLuca said. “They drafted a switch hitter; they didn’t like it. But I think they liked it after I hit 20 (homers).”

Twenty-two, to be exact, between two Class A stops in 2021. Then, 25 between Class A and Double A the next year. And 19 over stops at Double A, Triple A and the majors last season. It was an impressive leap after he hit just 11 homers in 111 games for Oregon (with a .226 average and .650 OPS) and one in 26 Arizona rookie league games following the draft.

“I didn’t hit in college,” DeLuca said. “So the Dodgers didn’t draft me as a hitter. They drafted me as an athlete who was good on defense and fast. …

“So I kind of just made that decision to switch over, because I wanted to hit homers and hit for average.”

The determination DeLuca shows in trying to get better is matched by the intensity with which he plays.

Though SoCal cool by birth and chill and laid-back off duty, he earns raves for what he does on the field.

“My first take was that it’s amazing how hard he plays all the time,” said Nasiatka, who first coached DeLuca in 2021. “He’s really intense. He’s really focused. And he’s super talented.”

Or, as pitcher Ryan Pepiot, who came to the Rays with DeLuca in the Tyler Glasnow trade, put it:

“An absolute dawg in the field. Somebody you love to have out there, because you know if there’s a wall and the baseball, he’s going to run through the wall for it. And then up at the plate, he’s a team guy, very selfless, takes at-bats very seriously. He knows the situation, he knows what he needs to do to try to help the team.”

Plus, having returned last weekend from a broken hand sustained during spring training, DeLuca has shown, as with the Dodgers, to be a good fit in the clubhouse.

“That’s basically his sixth tool,” Pepiot said. “He’s got that infectious smile, and he’s just a guy you want to be around. … Somebody who can vibe with anybody and really bring people together and just make it fun.”

With a standard SoCal background that included lots of surfing and skateboarding — “So it was a kind of a cool little connection with the City Connect (uniforms),” he said — DeLuca has taken quickly to the Tampa Bay area, including a near-daily regimen of a morning coffee and a trip to the beach.

“He was always a laid-back type of personality who brought it on the field,” said Jason Bourgeois, a former Dodgers minor-league coach now with the White Sox. “He has this superstar thing about him, I think. And quietly he’s just going to sneak up on a lot of people. A lot of fans, I’ll say that. Baseball people know.”

As for the earring? DeLuca has made it part of his permanent look, with several options to pick from.

“I guess it’s got to stay,” he said.

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