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Notes: Pitching staff turns corner

Notes: Pitching staff turns corner

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BOSTON -- Grant Balfour hears the taunts. For the 30-year-old Australian right-hander, whose 3.00 ERA (18 innings) represents a comeback season in a Tampa Bay uniform after four mostly spotty stints in Minnesota and Milwaukee, the bullpen provides little shelter from being a Devil Ray.

"You always hear fans yelling out, you know, things like, 'You're the worst team in baseball,' and this and that," Balfour said. "That kind of gets to you. It kind of fires you up a little bit."

As it happened, Balfour's place in the 'pen on Monday night, where he watched Scott Kazmir and fellow relievers Dan Wheeler and Al Reyes dispatch the first-place Red Sox, played more like a coveted front-row seat. These Rays can pitch, fans are beginning to learn, at least better than their league-worst 5.53 ERA, which ballooned throughout a disastrous first four and a half months.

Since Aug. 24, the beginning of a 17-game stretch in which Tampa Bay has gone 13-4, the Rays own a 3.97 ERA, third best in the American League and fifth best in baseball. Balfour owns a 2.70 ERA in the last 30 days, second on the staff to right-hander Scott Dohmann (1.38).

During that stretch, the bullpen, which has posted a league-worst 6.02 ERA for the season, boasts a 3.78 ERA in 45 2/3 innings.

"It's huge," said manager Joe Maddon. "That's what we've been able to do, and that's why our record has been so much better."

Why the improvement? Balfour has one theory.

"If one or two guys do well, then everyone starts to do well," Balfour said.

Reyes, who shut the door on the Red Sox on Monday, said, "We're being aggressive and throwing strikes. It's what they tell you; when you throw strikes, good things happen."

The results, Maddon said, have shown up in the team record.

"The bullpen has become more efficient," Maddon said. "We've been able to win games we're supposed to win."

Reyes, Wheeler availability: Reyes has pitched on three straight days, earning two saves and a win. Wheeler has pitched twice in a row.

Maddon said Reyes and Wheeler would likely not be available against the Sox on Tuesday.

"I haven't talked to them yet, but I'm expecting not," Maddon said. "I'm expecting them both to say that they are. But I have to make that call."

Return of Casanova: The Rays called up reserve catcher Raul Casanova to give a break to banged-up regulars Dioner Navarro (right wrist) and Josh Paul (back).

Navarro, a switch-hitter, hit right-handed against Red Sox righty Curt Schilling on Monday to compensate for the pain. Navarro was planning to hit righty again on Tuesday, although that decision was made easier by the fact that many switch-hitters choose to hit from the right side against knuckleballer Tim Wakefield.

Casanova will serve as the backup.

"You know, you can't get by short-handed at that position," Maddon said. "We laugh about it, we joke about it. 'Who's your emergency catcher?' But that's the one spot you don't want to put anybody at with a real lack of experience."

Over the last few days, Maddon said, utility man Josh Wilson moved "close" to being No. 2 on the depth chart.

Paul has been battling back spasms and will not likely play soon.

"They're working it out right now," Paul said. "It should be all right. I don't think I'm that far right now. It's just, I'm taking some anti-inflammatories. [The trainers are] stretching it, massaging it, all that good stuff."

Young's ejection: A day after Delmon Young's first Major League ejection, for throwing a helmet from the dugout after being doubled off first on a close call, Maddon said he still planned to talk to Young.

It was the outfielder's ugliest on-field incident since throwing a bat at an umpire in during a Minor League game in April 2006, for which he was suspended 50 games.

"I want our guys to get beyond that ... beyond the helmet-throwing or the bat-throwing," Maddon said. "That's got to go away. That's just got to go away. When we're playing meaningful games next year at this time, our composure's going to be a big part of us winning."

Still, Maddon said, the incident was an exception in a blissfully calm season for the American League Rookie of the Year candidate.

"If you look up the body of work [from] the whole season, he's really been great," Maddon said. "He has not been arguing with any umpires. That was an emotional moment last night. And part of it, was, I think, the tenor of the game last night."

Pitch counts: Kazmir will not have another 118-pitch start this season.

"You're not going to see that again," Maddon said. "You won't see that again."

Maddon opted to leave in Kazmir for an extra 10 pitches on Monday night for two reasons.

"First of all, we've been pretty [careful] with his pitches in the recent past," Maddon said. "So we've been good about that."

"But more than that," he added, "it was the vibe of the game last night, [which] really indicated that for everybody, for our development, for his development, I thought it was important to leave him out there."

Maddon has repeatedly emphasized during the series that he is preparing his Rays for big-game atmospheres. As of Tuesday, the Red Sox had sold out 377 consecutive home games.

Minor League report: On Tuesday night, the Triple-A Durham Bulls were set to begin the Governor's Cup Championship series against the Richmond Braves. Left-hander J.P. Howell will get the ball for Game 1, followed by Jeff Niemann and Jae Seo.

The Double-A Montgomery Biscuits and Single-A Columbus Catfish are also in their respective leagues' championship series.

On deck: Righty Edwin Jackson gets the start against the Red Sox's Jon Lester on Wednesday night. First pitch is set for 7:05 p.m. ET.

Alex McPhillips is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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