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04/26/12 1:51 PM ET

Rays thriving behind locked-in pitching staff

ST. PETERSBURG -- Manager Joe Maddon said earlier this week that he firmly believed the Rays' pitching staff would get into a "really significant good roll" once the starters got settled to begin the season. Turns out, they're already on one.

Tampa Bay's pitching staff has put together a 2.03 ERA over the last nine games, starting April 16 at Boston, to lower its team ERA from a season-high 6.75 to 4.33. The Rays have gone 7-2 over that nine-game stretch and have won their last four games, heading into Thursday.

"We're definitely playing well. There's always room to improve, there's no doubt about it," right-hander James Shields said. "But I think our starting pitching has been phenomenal the last couple games. That's where it all starts. It all starts with us. If we keep the team in the game as long as we can, it's going to be good."

Maddon said he thought all his starters, with the exception of Shields, were trying to be too careful and too fine instead of just pounding the strike zone. But they've improved on that lately, and the differences between the first and last nine games are noticeable.

In their first nine games, Rays pitchers gave up 57 earned runs on 84 hits, 42 walks and 10 homers with only 49 strikeouts in 76 innings. Since then? Try 18 earned runs on 66 hits, 29 walks and five homers with 66 strikeouts in 80 innings.

Maddon holds outfield crew in high esteem

ST. PETERSBURG -- The way manager Joe Maddon sees it, the Rays have the ability to run out one of the best defensive outfields in baseball every day, whether it's Ben Zobrist or Matt Joyce roaming around right field.

The Rays had to mix and match early on, with center fielder B.J. Upton rehabbing an injured back. With Upton in center, Desmond Jennings is back in left field, and Zobrist and Joyce can platoon in right.

"I do believe it is one of the best I've seen," Maddon said Tuesday. "You talk about range, arms, fundamental soundness and the fact that they're still pretty young. It's a group that rivals among the best in all of baseball."

Maddon described Zobrist, who splits time in right field and second base, as "one of the most fundamentally sound outfielders in the game, period." Referencing the famous instructional baseball videos, Maddon smiled as he remarked Zobrist's outfield defense was "Tom Emanski quality."

"I know he doesn't play there all the time, but if you watch him and how he gets the ball and how he gets rid of baseballs and how well he throws and how quickly he dumps it -- everything he does out there is textbook," Maddon said. "That's the part I really appreciate about him being out there. ... Zo is going to listen, and then he's going to try to apply exactly what you're asking him to apply."

Worth noting

• With Wednesday night's win, Jeremy Hellickson became the second reigning Rookie of the Year to go 3-0 as a starter the season after winning the award, joining 2003 National League winner Dontrelle Willis, who started 3-0 in 2004.

• Entering Thursday's series finale with the Angels, the Rays held a 7-1 record at home -- the best in the Majors as well as their best in club history through eight home games.

Adam Berry is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamdberry. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.