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No-name bullpen big part of Rays' turnaround

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The art of bullpen building requires a keen eye and a knack for scoping out hidden treasures and underappreciated assets. Spend enough time sifting through the merchandise, and somebody else's castoff could turn out to be your personal savior -- or Grant Balfour.

Heaven knows the Tampa Bay Rays needed an upgrade after 2007, when their bullpen numbers were uglier than a Lehman Brothers balance sheet. The team ERA was a major league-worst 6.16, and one of the few relievers to emerge with his dignity intact was utility infielder Josh Wilson, who twirled an inning of shutout ball in a 14-8 loss to the Marlins.

If Rays general manager Andrew Friedman wins the executive of the year award for 2008, some people might point to the offseason trade that brought Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett to Tampa Bay as his signature move. But it's Friedman's Kevin Towers-like flair for bullpen renovation that really has set him apart from the crowd.

Tampa Bay beat the Chicago White Sox 6-2 on Friday to take a 2-0 lead in the best-of-five American League Division Series, thanks in large part to a two-run homer from Akinori Iwamura and Scott Kazmir's deft recovery from an exhausting 37-pitch first inning. But the bullpen, as usual, played an enormously important role.

Balfour, J.P. Howell and Chad Bradford spun 3 2/3 shutout innings in relief after the bullpen held down the fort in a 6-4 win in the series opener. As strong as Tampa's bullpen has been, it's even easier to appreciate in comparison to last season, when Casey Fossum, Shawn Camp, Jay Witasick, Tim Corcoran and others took their beatings in anonymity on a nightly basis.

No one has taken more pride in the Rays' bullpen turnaround than Troy Percival, who notched 28 saves this season when he wasn't on the disabled list with hamstring problems. Percival is inactive in the ALDS because of a back injury, and he might not pitch again this year. If that's the case, he said, he'll be happy to spend October "clapping loud and pompoming" in support of his bullpen buddies.

"I've been proud of these guys all year, because regardless of the situation they get brought into, they attack the strike zone," Percival said. "It doesn't matter who the hitter is. I firmly believe that without this bullpen, this team wouldn't be where we are."

Two pitchers best embody the turnaround. Howell, a former University of Texas star, was stagnating as a starter when the Rays thought they could jump-start his career by moving him to the bullpen. Prudent move: Howell tied Texas' Josh Rupe for the major league lead with 89 1/3 innings pitched and stranded an impressive 88.2 percent of inherited runners. He was the first left-hander to lead the majors in relief innings since Minnesota's Greg Swindell in 1997.

At various times, Rays manager Joe Maddon lobbied for Howell to make the All-Star team and christened him the team MVP. But Howell's nondescript radar gun readings make some skeptics think his success is a mirage.

Friday night was a prime example. Howell entered the game with two runners on and nobody out in the seventh, and responded with two shutout innings while never topping 88 mph.

Howell said he learned to get out of jams as a starter and has been better able to harness his nerves this year while paying less attention to the crowd noise and external pressures. He certainly doesn't obsess over his radar gun readings.

"You can't watch the gun," Rays reliever Dan Wheeler said. "The gun is overrated. They should probably throw that thing away."

In Balfour's case, it's less a question of nerves or velocity than channeling his intensity. He admits he likes to get "fired up" when he pitches, and it was never more evident than in a testy exchange with White Sox shortstop Orlando Cabrera during Game 1.

It's been a bumpy ride to reach this point. Balfour spent nine years in the Minnesota system with limited success. He drifted to Cincinnati and then Milwaukee before coming to Tampa in a trade for Seth McClung in July 2007.

The Rays designated Balfour for assignment in spring training, and he cleared waivers and began the season with Triple-A Durham. He admits the demotion has served as motivational fuel this season.

"To not make the team out of camp, yeah, I was annoyed," Balfour said. "I wanted to be in the big leagues, and I obviously didn't feel I was a Triple-A pitcher. I was angry, and I wanted to show them I belong up here and I could do well up here."

Mission accomplished. After rejoining the big club in late May, Balfour averaged 12.65 strikeouts per nine innings, posted a 1.54 ERA and held opponents to a .143 batting average. Watching him throw his 95 mph fastball past hitters, you can only wonder what took him so long.

Balfour comes from Blacktown, Australia, the same town that produced actress Toni Collette of "The Sixth Sense" and "Little Miss Sunshine" fame. Although he's yet to attain Collette's level of prominence back home, Balfour's success clearly is resonating with his countrymen. For what it's worth, he's making baseball fans in Australia forget Graeme Lloyd.

"There are a bunch of Rays fans back home, for sure," Balfour said. "A lot of Yankees hats are getting thrown out and a lot of Rays hats are getting put on. That's kind of nice."

When Percival was active this season, there was no doubt which pitcher would get the ball in the ninth inning. Now that he's out, Maddon seems to freelance his way through the late innings on matchups and gut instinct. Tampa's manager doesn't have to worry about hurting anybody's feelings or tending to his pitchers' comfort zones by making sure they're used in their designated "roles."

One night, Wheeler will close. The next night, it might be Balfour. In Friday's game, it was Bradford. Probably few people realized Bradford had been warming up in the bullpen about 2½ hours earlier when Kazmir was laboring in the second inning.

"Right now, all our guys know it doesn't matter [when they pitch]," Maddon said. "We're just trying to match them up the best we can according to the hitters. Nobody's ego is getting in the way of anything."

You can color their collars blue. While some relievers today sit in spacious bullpens behind the outfield fence, Tampa's guys wedge into a cramped space along the stands down the right-field line. And Percival is the highest paid of the group at a relatively modest $4 million this season.

Yet they went 31-17 with a 3.55 ERA during the regular season, and they've shown no signs of slacking off when the games matter most.

"We are not a high-profile bullpen," Percival said. "I at one point was a high-profile guy, but now I'm a retread who's out here with knowledge and heart. We have guys with a ton of heart down there. That epitomizes our bullpen. There's no quit in it."

Just a lot of outs.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.