Thursday, October 23, 2008 Updated: October 24, 10:00 AM ET
Bartlett quietly helps Rays win, America eat
By Amy K. Nelson ESPN.com
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Jason Bartlett's cell phone has been inundated with messages from numbers he doesn't recognize. But all the notes streaming into his new phone are the same: congratulations from friends and family for scoring them a free taco.
Yes, Bartlett is in the World Series with the Tampa Bay Rays. He's even driven in a run -- with a safety squeeze that pushed across Cliff Floyd in the fourth inning of the team's 4-2 win over the Phillies on Thursday night in Game 2 of the World Series.
But, as usual, Bartlett is earning more praise for the smaller acts, such as his Game 2 bunt or his Game 1 stolen base, which will allow every person in America to claim a free taco from 2-6 p.m. local time on Tuesday.
"I changed over my phone this morning, and I didn't transfer the numbers yet," Bartlett said. "I'm getting all these text messages but don't know who they are yet."
Asked whether he was being given a hard time by his friends, he said, "No, they're saying 'Thank you.'"
The appreciation has come in small doses for Bartlett this season, but the unassuming shortstop prefers it that way. He hit .286 this season, drove in 37 runs and homered once. Remarkably, that performance was enough for local Tampa sportswriters to vote Bartlett -- not third baseman Evan Longoria or pitcher James Shields or first baseman Carlos Pena -- as the team's MVP.
"I got the chills," Bartlett said. "I couldn't believe it. I worked so hard this year, and for something like that to happen for me was just an awesome feeling."
To his teammates, it was no surprise.
"It's funny, if you were to go off the top of your head, 'Who is your MVP this season?' you'd have to think about it," designated hitter Jonny Gomes said. "But if they were to hand you a ballot and [you] see Jason's name, it's a no-brainer because he's so even-keel."
That was a typical description of Bartlett, who's 2-for-3 with two walks and an RBI in the first two games of this World Series. Others have described him as quiet, professional, funny and dependable. He's also incredibly reliable on defense and forms a solid double-play combination with second baseman Akinori Iwamura that makes the entire team feel at ease. He did so despite a language barrier between the two.
Jason Bartlett has had a good World Series so far. In two games, he has driven home a key run and won America a free taco.
"You feel so comfortable, you feel so confident knowing you can throw a strike behind in the count," Scott Kazmir said about having Bartlett play behind him. "It's not just Bartlett, [but] with 'Aki,' that combination just pretty much seals up the middle infield."
Added Gomes: "It's weird, because he's real quiet and to himself and he doesn't show a lot of emotions. It's almost like an even keel all day, all night. He's just a real, true professional. Just perfect characteristics you'd want in a player for a shortstop.
"With him playing in the middle of the field, his emotions are read by everybody."
Bartlett wasn't the headliner in the deal that brought him to the Rays from Minnesota this past winter, a trade that was more about the arrival of pitcher Matt Garza to Tampa. That didn't matter to Bartlett, who will turn 29 on Thursday. All he cared about was showing up and doing his job.
"Since day one of spring training, they told me they wanted me to take control with 'Aki' over there," Bartlett said. "I have to be vocal and take control, and I like it. I've grown accustomed to it, and I like that role."
Bartlett said that when he played for the Twins, manager Ron Gardenhire had sent him down to the minor leagues and asked him to work on his communication skills with teammates. Gardenhire wanted Bartlett to be more of a leader; he wanted him to be able to captain the infield.
"His personality made him a leader," former Twins teammate Kevin Slowey wrote in a text message. "Not loud or verbose, but very consistent and honest. His even-keeled nature had a tendency to keep the clubhouse balanced, which is incredibly difficult to do over the course of a long season."
Bartlett has quietly carried that nature over to the Rays. He's been hitting in the ninth slot these first two World Series games. (He became the first position player in Series history to go exactly 2-for-2 from the 9-hole in a win.) He's only about 185 pounds and looks even smaller in person, and he speaks in almost a hushed tone. But he's widely respected, even by Phillies manager Charlie Manuel. When Manuel was asked whether it was a sure thing that he would take out ace Cole Hamels after seven innings, Manuel pointed to Bartlett as one of the main reasons -- even though he couldn't recall his name.
"Actually I wanted to What's the shortstop's name? Bartlett? [Hamels] had walked him twice. And I wanted to put [Ryan] Madson in, who has been throwing real good, on those guys. But also Madson I would have used him in the eighth inning. But the big reason was because of who was leading off."
Perhaps the opposing manager can't remember his name. And maybe most people in America can't pick him out of a lineup. But Jason Bartlett just won them all a free taco. More importantly, he's done it all while helping his team draw even in this World Series.
Amy K. Nelson is a staff writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.