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Older, wiser Rays ready to make leap

Older, wiser Rays ready to make big leap

Over the years, Camden Yards has not been a friendly venue to the Rays. Now, Tampa Bay is preparing to open the 2008 season in what has been a Rays graveyard -- only this year it will be doing so with a different look than in past seasons.

The Rays have not had a winning record against the O's in Baltimore since 1998, when they went 5-1. Last season, they extended a losing streak at Camden Yards that began in 2006 to nine games before sweeping the O's in three games at the end of August. In 10 seasons, the Rays have a 33-50 record against the O's at Camden Yards.

"I don't really know why we've had such a tough time [at Baltimore], because at times it might seem we had the better team and they always beat us pretty good," said Carl Crawford, a .296 career hitter who has hit just .260 at Camden. "I can't put my finger on it. I just know a lot of times we end up losing."

Rays manager Joe Maddon has his own ideas about why Baltimore has been such a Waterloo for the Rays.

"They always had experienced hitters and they would always seem to catch us late in the game," Maddon said. "And when it got to the bullpen late in the game, [Melvin] Mora, [Miguel] Tejada, and [Brian] Roberts, they've had this great group of experienced hitters.

"And our bullpen being kind of light the last couple of years, they would get us late often. And I think that's why they pretty much have beaten up on us so much, because we could just not hold them late because of these hitters."

Constants such as Crawford, B.J. Upton, Jonny Gomes, Dioner Navarro and Carlos Pena are still with the team, which will have marked differences in the field and in the bullpen.

Akinori Iwamura will move from third to second, and Jason Bartlett is on board to take over at shortstop.

Iwamura came to the Rays from Japan in 2007 and he spent the season playing third base, save for the final game of the season in Toronto when he tried a shift at second. Iwamura flashed All-Star leather at third base, but the prospect of moving him to second has been a part of the team's long-range planning all along. And the way he played the position this spring offered solid proof his position change should be a smooth transition.

Bartlett came to the Rays along with right-hander Matt Garza in a trade that sent right fielder Delmon Young and infielder Brendan Harris to the Twins. Bartlett was attractive to the Rays more for his defense than offense, but he does have speed. Bartlett stole 23 bases in 2007 and he hit .309 for the Twins in '06.

Bartlett committed 26 errors last season, the most for any shortstop in the Major Leagues. But he has a strong arm and good range, which are attributes not seen in a box score. Some of Bartlett's struggles in 2007 can be attributed to neck and shoulder injuries that plagued him throughout the season. Regardless, the Rays are sold on the player who will take over at shortstop this season and he has played well this spring.

Meanwhile, the Rays addressed their bullpen issues by adding to the top in the offseason.

In November, the Rays signed veteran Troy Percival to a deal worth $8 million over two years to become the team's closer.

Percival is 12th on the all-time saves list with 324, but he hasn't earned a single save in nearly two and a half years. That should change if he remains healthy this season. Adding him has allowed the Rays to move last year's closer, Al Reyes, who had 26 saves in 2007, to a setup role, which adds depth to the late-inning situation.

Camden Yards should be a nice litmus test to see how much the Rays have grown.

"Absolutely, it is," Maddon said. "And I believe we have grown. We have, because it's a year deeper and they've played another year in the big leagues. I think the veterans within our group now are going to make a big difference."

Pitching matchup
TB: RHP James Shields (12-8, 3.85 ERA in 2007)
The bulldog of the Rays' staff will be making his first Opening Day start.

BAL: RHP Jeremy Guthrie (7-5, 3.70 ERA in 2007)
Guthrie had over twice as many strikeouts (147) as walks (70) in 2007.

Rays bits
The Rays have a three-game winning streak at Camden Yards after sweeping the O's in August. ... Pena hit .316 against the O's in 2007 with six home runs and 19 RBIs in 13 games. ... Gomes has a career .500 (2-for-4) average with a home run and two RBIs against Guthrie. ... Tampa Bay is 5-5 on Opening Day and is 0-2 in two openers against the O's.

On the Internet
 MLB.TV
 Gameday Audio
•  Gameday
•  Official game notes

On television
• ION

On radio
• WHNZ 1250 AM; WGES 680 AM (Spanish)

Up next
• Tuesday: Off-day
• Wednesday: Rays (Matt Garza, 5-7, 3.69) at Orioles (Steve Trachsel, 7-11, 4.90), 7:05 p.m. ET
• Thursday: Rays (Andy Sonnanstine, 6-10, 5.85) at Orioles (Daniel Cabrera, 9-18, 5.55), 7:05 p.m. ET

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

{"content":["opening_day" ] }
{"content":["opening_day" ] }