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Tuesday, May 6, 2008
Improved bullpen big reason Rays have high hopes

By Amy K. Nelson
ESPN.com

BOSTON -- As the Rays players gathered around the TV in the cramped visitors clubhouse in Fenway Park, a poll suddenly appeared. Viewers were asked which team was most likely to fall off after its quick start, and after a moment of suspense, Tampa Bay was revealed the winner with 30 percent of the vote.

"Aw, that's cold," Rays left fielder Carl Crawford said. "That's cold-hearted right there. They must all be Boston fans, since we're at Fenway."

Troy Percival

Percival

Relief Pitcher
Tampa Bay Rays

Profile

2008 Season Stats
GM IP SV BB K ERA
10 10 6 1 9 0.00

An awkward silence followed, and players started moving on to other pregame activities. It's silly to think that a poll somehow got into the heads of Tampa players this weekend after they were swept in Boston. But the question seems to be at the heart of what hovers around these Rays: Has the organization really released the Devil from within?

A lifetime of losing has engendered skepticism -- at least with fans -- that Tampa Bay actually is for real. Players, manager Joe Maddon and management all seem to think this team can compete, but they are also quick to temper the excitement.

"My role has shifted," Maddon said, "from being the eternal optimist to being the more pragmatic one. And I recognized both goals in advance. When I first came here, I knew it was going to be necessary to prop things up, and now I know it's going to be necessary to somehow curb the enthusiasm."

The team's arrival in Boston Friday seemed a fitting time. The Rays were tied for first place with the Red Sox, had swept Boston a weekend before, and had won eight of their past nine. By the time they left, the Rays were a game above .500 (16-15) and tied for third place after getting swept.

If indeed this organization is different, what is it that makes it so?

Statistically, the most dramatic turnaround has been the bullpen. Much has been made of its 6.16 ERA last season, the worst in the majors in more than 50 years. And much was made of its MLB-leading 2.44 ERA heading into the Boston series this past weekend (now at 2.96, it's second in the American League to Oakland). But as team president Matt Silverman pointed out, the pitching staff has also been helped by a strong fielding team.

"The invisible force behind the success has been the defense," Silverman said. "It's hard to quantify that, so it's hard to recognize the impact the defense is having. But it gives the pitchers confidence to leave a ball in play."

But why has this bullpen been so successful this early? A closer look at who actually inhabits it reveals an interesting mix of veterans, journeymen and players still trying to establish themselves. It also lacks any evidence of diversity, with Al Reyes on the disabled list.

"It's very vanilla," Maddon said. "I think we've got the suburban fathers thing going out there. It's a bedroom community we're developing out there."

"DROP THE DEVIL"

It's been five months since Rays team president Matt Silverman launched his "Drop the Devil" campaign, urging employees, fans and the media to erase the Devil and add Rays to their lexicon. The effort has resulted in Silverman's signing at least 150 letters (ESPN.com is an offender; click here to view the letter sent to ESPN.com from Silverman) and raising over $1,000 for charity in the process.

"I think Fernando Vina sometime over the weekend said Devil Rays," Silverman said. "Someone reported it to us and we sent out a letter."

The reports usually are from staff, though many fans have written in, citing violations. Each violator receives a form letter followed with a detailed description of said violation, signed by Silverman.

After starting a donation box for employees to drop a $1 for every violation, Silverman said "Devil" has been eradicated from Tampa's executive offices. He hasn't had a 100 percent completion rate with the media and blogs, though he said the idea has been very successful.

"People are having fun with it," Silverman said. "And that's really the point."

The campaign will likely last until the All-Star break. Then, the focus will shift to a much different task.

"Our next big campaign is trying to get [our new] ballpark built," Silverman said.

That one will be a bit more difficult.
--Amy K. Nelson

All of the relievers, of course, are led by closer Troy Percival, who's been credited with helping turn around the camaraderie in the entire clubhouse. Percival says this bullpen, out of all he's been in, is the most professional -- and it's easier to manage since its absent 22-year-olds who are still learning to be big leaguers.

It's also a close one; whenever on the road, a standing invitation for lunch at 11:45 is open every day and already they've had two bullpen dinners, despite the lack of road trips. Other than Percival (who goes out to the 'pen in the third inning) they almost always all walk out together, as a unit.

"I'm more proud of my bullpen stats -- as an entire bullpen -- than what I do individually, for sure," Percival said.

Added Dan Wheeler: "When that guy's out there [on the mound], we're all out there together."

The group support has been key for many players who are coming off subpar years.

Here's a quick look at who occupies the Tampa Bay bullpen:

Percival: He came out of retirement last season and went 3-0 with a 1.80 ERA in 34 games with the Cardinals. He signed a two-year deal to be the Rays' closer, and hasn't allowed a run in 10 appearances this season.

Wheeler: The veteran reliever came over in a trade with the Astros last year, and he signed a contract extension to stay in Tampa this past offseason. He had a combined 5.30 ERA last year for the Rays and Astros; this year, his ERA stands at 1.69.

Trever Miller: The 34-year-old lefty forms a strong veteran leadership group with Percival and Wheeler. A former Ray in '04 and '05, he signed as a free agent this past winter. Miller had a 4.86 ERA with Houston last season and now is at 4.00.

Kurt Birkins: The 27-year-old left-hander was claimed off waivers this past winter from the Orioles, with whom he went 1-2 with an 8.13 ERA last season. This year, he has a 0.90 ERA in six outings.

Scott Dohmann: Other than Percival, he was the only reliever last year to have an ERA under 4.00. At 30, Dohmann is with his third team in the past three years, and his ERA jumped to 5.02 after a rough weekend.

J.P. Howell: He was a starter last year with Tampa and posted a 7.59 ERA in 10 starts. The lefty moved to the 'pen this year, and so far, he has a 3.79 ERA in nine appearances.

Reyes, Jason Hammel and Gary Glover: Reyes and Glover are both on the disabled list, forcing Maddon to move Hammel from the starting rotation to the bullpen.

Maddon equates the bullpen's success to Percival, but also says that many times players need to be in a supportive environment to extract the best results. The players say another key is that they know their roles.

"When the phone rings," Wheeler said, "we pretty much know who it's for."

Maddon admitted that the past few years the roles were constantly shifting, and that was, perhaps more than anything, a leading cause of an epically bad bullpen last season. Morale was low and bullpen dinners were much more infrequent -- Wheeler, Dohmann, Glover and Reyes, the holdovers who still remain, can attest to that.

I'm more proud of my bullpen stats -- as an entire bullpen -- than what I do individually, for sure.

-- Rays closer Troy Percival

"I believe you can't have a good bullpen unless you have defined roles," Percival said. "I've always had the same goal: to be in the top five bullpens in the league. If you do that, you're keeping your team in the ballgame [and] you're giving your team a chance to win."

The culture of winning has taken time, but general manager Andrew Friedman is determined to make Tampa a destination. That's why the signing of Percival, outfielder Cliff Floyd and even Miller has helped the organization gain credibility.

"I like being an underdog," Miller said. "To have the chance to come in and take a team at the bottom and work the way up, I thought that was a pretty significant responsibility."

They walk out to the bullpen as a unit, they eat as a unit, and they even kill time as a unit. The mundane is often discussed, and one particular session involved their guessing the weight of their equipment and their luggage on charter flights (it was 9,250 pounds, they guessed 8,500).

"We actually worked as a group to strategize and come up with that number," Wheeler said.

For an organization that has struggled with team chemistry and cohesion, it's a sign of progression. It's not only the relievers, but it's obvious that much of the team's success is the result of the bullpen's efforts. Where the Rays will be in September is unknown, but they are still planning to make it a competitive race -- even if the only true believers right now are themselves.

Amy K. Nelson is a staff writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached via e-mail at amy.k.nelson@espn3.com.