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07/11/07 12:00 PM ET

Rays look to bridge gap in second half

Curing pitching woes a key priority for greater success

Bridging the gap in the second half will go a long way toward curing the Devil Rays' major problem in the first half: the bullpen.

Every Rays fan knows that bridging the gap means having the starting pitcher get deeper into the game so the bullpen has fewer innings to fill.

Any bullpen that constantly has to pitch from the fourth and fifth inning on -- and sometimes earlier -- is going to be stressed. The number of innings the Rays' bullpen had to make up in the first half took its toll on the bullpen's performance, which, in effect, negatively impacted the Rays' win total.

James Shields proved to be the Rays' only starting pitcher able to consistently get past the fifth inning. He made going seven look routine and pitched into the eighth and ninth innings on occasion.

"He's a strike-zone attacker," Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey said. "He doesn't walk a lot of guys. He gets a lot of outs without going deep into the count also."

When Shields pitches, the team believes it can win, and they respond to the way he pitches.

"He definitely keeps you in the game," B.J. Upton said. "He gets a lot of ground balls. [He] has a good pace. His pace keeps you in the game."

So heading into the second half, the team knows it can count on Shields, who is on schedule to have a 200-inning season.

"In terms of a pitching staff, having a guy who can get eat up 200 innings is huge," Hickey said. "It's gigantic. If you can have a couple of guys pitch 200 innings, well, that's 410-420 innings of work that's taken care of, and whether the results are good, bad or indifferent, that 400-plus innings of work. That's why it's extremely important to have some of those guys."

Much of the first-half starting pitching futility came when Edwin Jackson, Casey Fossum and Jae Seo started; Jackson is the only one of the three still in the rotation. Fossum is now in the bullpen and Seo is pitching at Triple-A Durham. In their places, the Rays brought up right-hander Andy Sonnanstine and left-hander J.P. Howell, each of whom has already shown an ability to pitch late into the game.

Therefore, it's not that difficult to take a glass-half-full stance when looking at the second-half prospects for the starting pitching.

Scott Kazmir, who was supposed to be the ace of the staff, has not pitched poorly, he just hasn't been able to keep his pitch count down. In turn, this has limited the number of innings he has been able to pitch. If Kazmir can find his way and Sonnanstine and Howell continue to go deep into the game like Shields, the bullpen should be far more rested and, in theory, more effective.

"Jackson, if he can continue what he's been doing lately, Kazmir -- I believe he can start getting deeper into the games -- and I think Sonnanstine can get us deeper into the game, so I think there's a legitimate chance for our starters to get us deeper into the game," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "That, in and of itself, should help our bullpen get better."

4/13, TB 4, MIN 2 -- Crawford's inside-the-park shot
Carl Crawford circles the bases in just 14.12 seconds for his second career inside-the-park homer.
Highlights: 400K
4/24, TB 6, NYY 4 -- Crawford's monster night
Crawford leads the Rays to a sweep of the Yankees behind a 4-for-4 night that includes a grand slam.
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5/17, TB 8, TEX 6 -- Young's walk-off in Orlando
Delmon Young's second homer of the night -- a walk-off blast -- capped a three-game sweep at Disney's Wide World of Sports.
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5/30, TB 5, DET 3 -- Shields' gem
James Shields regroups after a tough first to toss a complete game against the defending AL champion Tigers.
Highlights: 400K
6/12, TB 11, SD 4 -- Kazmir duels Maddux
Scott Kazmir fans 11 Padres in a meeting with boyhood idol Greg Maddux.
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Finally, the pitching should get more help in the way of run support in the second half based on the return of its everyday lineup.

Injuries hurt the Rays in the first half. Akinori Iwamura, Rocco Baldelli and Upton all have endured sustained periods on the disabled list. If Upton and Baldelli can successfully return to the everyday lineup, not only will it strengthen the everyday lineup, the bench will be improved as well.

Along those same lines, the Rays will have an entire half with Brendan Harris and Carlos Pena in the lineup; the starting shortstop and starting first baseman have been pleasant surprises for the Rays.

While the first half did not feature many games against the Yankees and Red Sox -- and the second half is loaded with contests against their American League East foes -- the Rays should be better equipped to handle the rigors of playing the AL East bullies.

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.