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05/10/08 7:56 PM ET

Defense leading the way for Rays

Outfield's stellar play integral to team's early-season success

ST. PETERSBURG -- Anybody who doesn't believe the Rays can throw down the leather must have missed ESPN following Friday night's game.

The sports network featured plays by Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton and Evan Longoria, each of which played an integral role in James Shields' one-hit, complete-game shutout of the Angels.

"When your team gets three of the Top 10 plays on 'SportsCenter' in one night, it's pretty special," Shields said.

Of the three, Crawford's might have been the most amazing. The Rays' left fielder lifted off in the third inning to dive fully extended to rob Mike Napoli of what would have been an extra-base hit.

"The thing about that [is that] it wasn't a pop fly," Shields said. "It was a line drive, and the ground he covered so quickly -- it was amazing."

No team in baseball can boast of having two outfielders possessing the skills of Crawford and Upton.

"[Those are] two of the fastest guys in the big leagues," Shields said. "They're both young, and they're still learning the game. C.C.'s been helping out B.J. a lot. It's a pretty good combo out there."

Rays hitting coach Steve Henderson said outfield defense like the Rays have is frustrating to opposing hitters.

"Because you're talking about [how] you can't hit it in the gap, you can't hit it over their heads," Henderson said. "As a hitter, you get [upset]."

Added Troy Percival, "Balls that would typically fall don't."

While the outfielders have made the acrobatic look routine, the veteran closer offered a reminder that the Rays' infield, which leads the Major Leagues with just eight errors this season, should not be forgotten.

"Not many teams have the infield we have," Percival said. "Carlos [Pena] is fantastic; [Akinori Iwamura] is right there with [guys like Placido] Polanco and [Adam] Kennedy that I played with. [Jason] Bartlett, defensively, is probably the best shortstop I've ever played with.

"I loved having Eck [David Eckstein], but everybody knows Eck's range is limited. ... As far as getting the whole package of routine plays, great plays [and] double plays, [Bartlett is] as good as I've ever played with. Then you've got Longoria over there at third base, he's a future Gold Glove, and [Dioner Navarro] has come on so good behind the plate. ... He's taking a lot of pride in his catching.

"Defensively, all around the board, this is the best team I've ever had."

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