07/28/12 9:14 PM ET
And on the mound for the Rays ... Jeremy Hellickson
By Bill Chastain / MLB.com
Rays manager Joe Maddon wasn't bashful about speaking up on behalf of Jeremy Hellickson, the Rays' starter on Sunday.
"My point is, I'm happy to have Jeremy Hellickson pitching for us," Maddon said. "We've beaten Cy Young Award winners in the past. We can do it again. We play against a lot of good pitchers all the time. You have to be able to beat those guys to get to the Promised Land.
"Jeremy Hellickson, to me, is one of the better young pitchers in the game also. He has not won a Cy Young yet, but I'll take Helly. And my point is do not underestimate what we have either."
Rays seeing improvement on defensive side
ANAHEIM -- Fielding has been a problem for the Rays this season, which has prompted a lot of people to scratch their heads because the Rays are a team built for pitching and defense.
But just lately, things seem to be turning around defensively for the team.
After making 71 errors in 86 games before the All-Star break (second most in the Major Leagues), the Rays have made only five in the first 14 games since the break (tied with four other teams for the fewest in the Major Leagues).
Entering Saturday night's contest against the Angels, the Rays had gone six consecutive games without an error, their longest streak of the season. In addition, they are errorless in nine of their last 10 games, but the one game they weren't perfect -- July 20 vs. Seattle -- they made three errors, giving them 76 on the season, three more than they made all of last season.
The Rays have allowed just three unearned runs in the last 30 games after allowing a Major League high of 40 in their first 76 games.
Rays first baseman Carlos Pena, a Gold Glove recipient in 2008, said he had no explanation for the turnaround, saying he doesn't see anything different.
"Baseball's very mysterious sometimes," Pena said, "and that's one of those things. I think we're still the same ballclub.
"... Everybody is doing their work and executing. We're a good defensive ballclub and we were playing below our potential. ... Tangible reason [for the improvement]? I would be making it up if I told you one."
It's as if there's no K in Keppinger
ANAHEIM -- Jeff Keppinger has struck out just 11 times in 198 plate appearances, which earns him the distinction as being the toughest to strike out in the American League this season.
The Rays' infielder was the toughest to strike out in the National League in 2008, 2010 and 2011. Since April 25, his .377 batting average leads the Major Leagues (minimum of 100 at bats).
"I just put the ball in play," Keppinger said. "Try not to do too much. Sometimes they're going to fall. Sometimes they're not.
"... If you hit the ball you've got a chance to get a hit, a chance to get on base. There are certain pitchers, they don't give up home runs. So there's no point in swinging for the fence against them. Better to just catch them early in the count, just touch it, and see what happens. That's always been my approach."
Being an experienced Major Leaguer helps Keppinger's cause as well.
"Coming with experience, you see pitchers over and over again and you see what they're trying to do, their approach," Keppinger said. "Maybe sometimes you can pick one early in the count and drive a ball. That's my approach."
Keppinger has played in 57 games this season, a lot for a player who was projected to be a role player, considering he spent from May 21 to June 22 on the disabled list with a broken big toe on his right foot. When asked about all the playing time, Keppinger smiled.
"I didn't sign up for this much," Keppinger said.
Then, addressing the question seriously, he said he thought he would come in and play against left-handers.
"Because my career numbers are good against lefties," Keppinger said. "Seems like every team I've been on, something always happens to infielders. So you get those opportunities to play.
"And, obviously, with this team we've had a lot of injuries. You don't expect it to be that long and drawn out. But it is what it is. And that's why I came over here. If something happens these guys can count on me to go in there and hopefully the production doesn't fall off too much."
Keppinger entered Saturday night's game hitting .330 with four home runs and 20 RBIs, which are solid numbers, aided, no doubt by his increased playing time.
"It's definitely better to play every day and see pitches on a daily basis than playing once or twice a week, coming off the bench," Keppinger said. "That's not an easy job to do. Definitely playing and seeing pitches on a daily basis gets your timing down better."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.