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Rays flashing the leather early

Rays flashing the leather early

ST. PETERSBURG -- On the bright side -- and there is a bright side to the Rays' recent injury woes -- the team's revamped infield is doing exactly what manager Joe Maddon envisioned.

The Rays' infield has only committed one error -- a Jason Bartlett throwing miscue on Friday -- coming into Sunday's game with the Orioles.

Bartlett, who was acquired from Minnesota during the offseason, was third among American League shortstops last season with a 4.67 range factor, which adds a player's putouts and assists and divides them by innings played. The shortstop joins second baseman Akinori Iwamura to form a strong middle infield that has combined for nine double plays already this season.

"We've talked about that, and that's going to be key for us all year," Maddon said.

With nine Rays on the disabled list, including starting pitchers Scott Kazmir and Matt Garza, a solid defense is crucial to help the team's young pitchers maintain their confidence. With the offense looking sluggish, particularly during a four-game losing skid last week, the dazzling infield play has helped steer the Rays toward greener pastures.

"It's pretty incredible," Maddon said. "And yeah, it does elevate and it's something that I think we're going to come to expect as the season's in progress -- the fact that we have that ability to play that kind of defense."

As for the addition of rookie Evan Longoria at third base, Maddon is equally confident the 22-year-old will hold his own at the hot corner.

"This guy's a fine defender, so that adds another realm," Maddon said on Friday, following the decision to recall Longoria. "[Eric] Hinske's done a nice job up there, [Willy] Aybar did a really good job at third base. Defensively, third base has held up very well to this point."

Often overlooked is the fine job Iwamura did at third base last season, when the agile 29-year-old posted a .975 fielding percentage, good for tops among Major League third basemen. Iwamura, who was signed by the Rays as a free agent on Dec. 15, 2006, switched over to second base during Spring Training this year and has looked like a seasoned pro.

The Rays' lone infielder to hold his position from last season is Carlos Pena, who started in just seven of the first 17 games last season before being named the team's everyday first baseman.

Although Pena is known best for his hitting, often overlooked is his strong defensive play, a part of his game Pena says he takes great pride in. The 29-year-old committed a mere eight errors in 148 games last season.

The first basemen's diving stop in Saturday's game robbed Baltimore's Luke Scott of a would-be base hit down the right-field line, drawing high praise from both Maddon and Rays starter Jason Hammel.

"We understand that a good defensive team is a winning team," Pena said. "Pitchers really appreciate when guys obviously make the routine plays and an occasional exceptional play. ...They want to make sure they are pitching to contact, that way the infield stays in the game, and then you are able to make good plays behind them."

Maddon also stressed the importance of good early-season defense, especially for a Rays team that has struggled at the plate.

"[We] talked about contributing to winning if we get several more wins out of our defense," he said. "Everyone just talks about winning off of your offense, winning out of your pitching; but you really want to win out of your defense, too."

Brittany Ghiroli 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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