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09/24/08 11:00 AM ET

Improvements key to Rays' success

Defensive upgrades, elevated bullpen integral in historic rise

The Rays' rise to first place may seem improbable, but the small-budget club's formula for success is hardly inexplicable.

When executive vice president Andrew Friedman and the rest of the Rays' brain trust set out to make a bevy of offseason changes, chief among them was improving on a Major League-high 944 runs allowed, and shoring up a 2007 bullpen that posted baseball's worst ERA (6.16) in the last half-century.

So, in making a multiplayer trade with the Twins in the offseason, Friedman was adamant on including shortstop Jason Bartlett in the deal, which was headlined by the acquisition of right-hander Matt Garza. The Rays' insistence on Bartlett -- a move later lauded by Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire -- has proved to be a critical component in 2008's revamped infield.

"I said all year that I think [Bartlett] is one of the MVPs of our team," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "We have won not because we have out-hit everybody. Obviously, it's been the defense, and he's been the glue to the whole thing."

It's no coincidence that the first-place Rays went 7-9 when Bartlett was on the disabled list, as the shortstop has affixed into a deadly-double-play combo with second baseman Akinori Iwamura. This spring, anticipating the arrival of rookie third baseman Evan Longoria, the Rays shifted Iwamura from the hot corner to second base, a move that has improved the defense two-fold. Iwamura's .990 fielding percentage ties him for third among Major League second basemen, as the infielder went errorless at his new position in the club's opening 76 games. Longoria's .963 fielding percentage puts the rookie's glove at fifth-best in the league. Prior to Sunday's two error game -- his first career multierror game -- the 22-year-old Longoria trailed only New York's Alex Rodriguez in fielding his position.

The Rays' new infield combined with dazzling play from center fielder B.J. Upton -- who is in his first full season at the position -- has helped give way to a Major League-best .717 defensive efficiency rating. What that means is nearly 72 percent of balls put into play are converted into outs, a number up substantially from 2007, when the Rays converted a Major League-low 66 percent of balls put in play into outs.

A small difference? Hardly.

Excluding home runs (which are not playable), the Rays had approximately 4,500 balls in play last season, which makes the difference from last year to this year about 270 extra outs, equivalent to 10 shutouts. The Rays enter Wednesday's game with 641 runs allowed, third-best in the Majors. In 11 years of existence, the Rays have never finished better than 10th in that category, which came in their inaugural 1998 season.

Rays rise up in 2008
2007 Rank
2008 Rank
Runs AllowedLast (944)Third (641)
ERA Last (5.53) Third (3.74)
Opponent's BA Last (.290)Third (.245)
Shutouts Last (2) T-Third to (12)
Bullpen ERA Last (6.16)Fifth (3.48)
Opp BA vs. Bullpen Last (.303)First (.220)
Fewest Blown Saves 12th (21)T-Third (15)
Fielding Pct. 27th (.980) T-Eighth (.985)

"[It] used to be a revolving door around here on defense," pitcher Scott Kazmir said. "It was like tryouts every year. Now, it's like we have Gold Glovers at every position -- set big league defensive guys."

Buoyed by upgraded gloves in the field, Tampa Bay's arms have gone from last to third in Major League ERA, and the bullpen is a far cry from a 2007 staff that coughed up 52 games in which the Rays held the lead.

"Last year, you look at all the games we lost, and most of them were from the seventh through the ninth inning," outfielder Carl Crawford said. "[The] bullpen, I think, has been the biggest thing that has turned us around this year."

It's been quite a historic turnaround. Entering Wednesday, Rays relievers are holding opponents to a Major League-best .220 batting average and have shaved nearly three runs off last year's ERA.

The offseason signings of Troy Percival and Trever Miller -- coupled with 2007's midseason trade for Dan Wheeler -- put a trio of seasoned veterans in charge of the Rays' late innings. But the real difference maker has been in middle relief, where former starter J.P. Howell and Grant Balfour -- who didn't even make the team this spring -- have dominated the opposition.

The pair have six wins a piece -- tops among Rays relievers -- and are just one shy of the club record. Howell has tossed a Major League-leading 89 1/3 innings, and has a league-high 92 strikeouts, while Balfour's 1.42 ERA is third-best among Major League relievers.

"These guys have come into their own," Carlos Pena said of the resuscitated bullpen. "[For] Tampa Bay players who were here last year, the climate here facilitates that."

Add in the acquisition of ground-ball specialist Chad Bradford and the recent call up of rookie southpaw David Price, and the ever-scheming Maddon's options out of the bullpen are enviable.

"If you pitch and play defense like we have, you're going to be in every game," outfielder Rocco Baldelli said. "If you only give up three, four runs a game, I don't care if you're the worst offense in the league, you're still going to be in every single game. So when you're in close games at the end, you're giving yourself a chance to win, to pull something out."

So it's no coincidence that the Rays' other Major League-leading stat is of the walk-off variety, as Tampa Bay has 11 walk-offs and 41 come-from-behind wins.

"They're all interrelated," Maddon said of the multiple facets that have the Rays on track to allow an astounding 300 fewer runs than last season. "The pitching drives the machine, and if you don't have that you can't sustain [success]."

Brittany Ghiroli is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.