ST. PETERSBURG -- While the Rays' starting pitching has been mostly outstanding, and their lineup has generally come through when it counts, the most impressive group so far this season might be the team's bullpen.
Between J.P. Howell's season-ending Spring Training injury and the acquisitions of Rafael Soriano and Joaquin Benoit, there was a great deal of uncertainty around Tampa Bay's relievers heading into the season. But they have outperformed expectations, with Benoit emerging as a shutdown setup man and arguably the most pleasant surprise.
"Coming into this season, we were really concerned about that a lot," manager Joe Maddon said. "Benny's pretty much become J.P., in a sense, and has permitted us to have this guy who pitches to both righties and lefties effectively.
"He's permitted everybody to be slotted. Of course, Soriano has the first say in regard to that, and now Benny has the second."
But the rest of the 'pen has more than pulled its weight. Grant Balfour has a 2.08 ERA in 43 1/3 innings of work, and Dan Wheeler is quietly having a great year, with a 2.97 ERA and 37 strikeouts to just 10 walks.
With Balfour, Benoit and Soriano unable to pitch Thursday after throwing two nights in a row against the Tigers, Wheeler and left-hander Randy Choate stepped up. Choate threw two-thirds of an inning to relieve David Price, and Wheeler tossed a perfect eighth and ninth on just 21 pitches to pick up his second save of the season.
"You just want to do your little part to help this team win," Wheeler said. "The everyday players that are out there battling for six, seven, eight innings -- when you get out there, you don't want to be that guy. You want to continue to roll."