Bullpen's performance a pleasant surprise
Season started with uncertainty around Soriano, Benoit
ST. PETERSBURG -- While the Rays' starting pitching has been mostly outstanding, and their lineup has generally come through when it counts, the most impressive group so far this season might be the team's bullpen.
Between J.P. Howell's season-ending Spring Training injury and the acquisitions of Rafael Soriano and Joaquin Benoit, there was a great deal of uncertainty around Tampa Bay's relievers heading into the season. But they have outperformed expectations, with Benoit emerging as a shutdown setup man and arguably the most pleasant surprise.
"Coming into this season, we were really concerned about that a lot," manager Joe Maddon said. "Benny's pretty much become J.P., in a sense, and has permitted us to have this guy who pitches to both righties and lefties effectively.
"He's permitted everybody to be slotted. Of course, Soriano has the first say in regard to that, and now Benny has the second."
But the rest of the 'pen has more than pulled its weight. Grant Balfour has a 2.08 ERA in 43 1/3 innings of work, and Dan Wheeler is quietly having a great year, with a 2.97 ERA and 37 strikeouts to just 10 walks.
With Balfour, Benoit and Soriano unable to pitch Thursday after throwing two nights in a row against the Tigers, Wheeler and left-hander Randy Choate stepped up. Choate threw two-thirds of an inning to relieve David Price, and Wheeler tossed a perfect eighth and ninth on just 21 pitches to pick up his second save of the season.
"You just want to do your little part to help this team win," Wheeler said. "The everyday players that are out there battling for six, seven, eight innings -- when you get out there, you don't want to be that guy. You want to continue to roll."
Upton returns, but Zobrist might miss series
ST. PETERSBURG -- B.J. Upton was back in the Rays' lineup Friday night against the Yankees, but Ben Zobrist could possibly miss the entire weekend series with stiffness in his lower back.
Upton said there was no doubt he would be ready for the series opener against New York, and his sprained left ankle felt "good enough to play on."
"That's all that matters. It's a big series," Upton said. "I told them yesterday, 'I'm playing tomorrow.' That was the plan all along."
Manager Joe Maddon said Upton wanted to play Thursday afternoon against the Tigers, but his lateral movement was still a little bit of a problem after he left Tuesday's game and sat out Wednesday's as well. Maddon added that he wasn't concerned about Upton's ankle Friday.
"You've got to keep a little bit of an eye on it, but I'd say if it's not 100 [percent], he's up in the 90s," Maddon said. "It's that back-of-your-mind kind of thing."
Zobrist, meanwhile, was still a little sore Friday, Maddon said. The utility man left Wednesday night's game with lower-back stiffness that he said was caused by taking too many aggressive swings in the batting cage.
Maddon said "it's a possibility" that Zobrist won't play at all against the Yankees, and the team should know by Sunday how serious the injury is. Maddon didn't think it was serious enough to consider putting Zobrist on the disabled list, though.
"He feels a lot better today than he did yesterday, so all the work they've been doing is paying off," Maddon said. "We'll see."
Any trades likely to come at last minute
ST. PETERSBURG -- If the Rays make a deal before Saturday's 4 p.m. ET Trade Deadline, manager Joe Maddon said it will come at the last minute.
Maddon said he talked Friday with Andrew Friedman, the team's executive vice president of baseball operations, and Tampa Bay was still involved in talks. However, he didn't think the Rays would put together an acceptable trade, adding that the chances were "less than 50 percent."
"The other-side thing, what they want in return for what we want -- you always believe it's a little too much, unfair or whatever," Maddon said. "It just keeps going back and forth. If something's going to be done, 11th hour is going to be it."
Rumors have spread that the Rays are interested in acquiring Nationals slugger Adam Dunn, who recently backed up from his initial resistance to being a team's designated hitter. Maddon, without mentioning any names, said acquiring someone specifically as a DH would be ideal for Tampa Bay, as the club is happy with the skill and versatility of its defense now.
"We don't want to do anything to impact negatively our pitching and defense, but if we can add somehow offensively, we would," Maddon said. "The offense is the variable. If we could keep all that going on and improve the variable, I think that'd be good."
If the Rays aren't able to complete a deal for Dunn or another player, Maddon won't be upset. He said the team is fine, and there are plenty of players in the Rays' farm system who could provide a boost later in the season.
"I think we still have nice pieces in the Minor Leagues. We're kind of unusual in that regard," Maddon said. "We have guys we actually like, compared to other teams where they just think, 'Well, if something happens, we have these guys.' We have guys we think can help us. There are other alternatives outside of acquiring someone else. We have that option, too."
Fan injured by broken bat at The Trop
ST. PETERSBURG -- A fan sitting behind the home dugout at Tropicana Field got hurt after getting struck by a bat Friday night during the Rays' 3-2 win over the Yankees.
Robinson Cano's broken-bat single to right in the sixth inning sent the top half of his bat firing into the stands, where it struck a fan in the forehead. The medical staff at Tropicana Field quickly attended to the man, who was taken from the stands on a stretcher.
According to the Rays, the fan was takem to Bayfront Hospital for observation. The fan's name was not released.
Adam Berry is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.