Stellar defense big key for Rays' success

Stellar defense big key for Rays' success

Stellar defense big key for Rays' success
PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- B.J. Upton recently reiterated a well-known fact inside the Rays' clubhouse when he said: "We take pride in our defense."

"We know we're going to be a good defensive club," the Rays' center fielder said. "That's what this team is built around, pitching and defense. Adding a little more offense is going to do nothing but help us."

The Rays committed the fewest errors in the Major Leagues in 2011 with a club-record 73, and the team's .988 fielding percentage tied with the Phillies for the tops in the Major Leagues.

"We were phenomenal last year defensively," said Rays executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman. "A lot of it gets to the pride that they take in it. ... That being said, last year not only did we have gifted defenders, [but] the way we utilized information, the way we were active with our positioning [was important, too]. I think we're going to have to continue to do that."

Tampa Bay committed just seven errors in the last 22 games of 2011 while opponents made 22. In 255 games since June 21, 2010, the Rays have made just 110 errors, fewest in the Major Leagues and 36 fewer than any other American League club.

"We caught line drives at a very, very high rate last year," Friedman said. "A lot of that gets to positioning and ability, but I think with that, it's difficult to say we'll definitely exceed that. More than that, it's that we have really good, gifted defenders around the diamond. It's part of the fabric of this organization, it's part of our DNA and it's something that will continue for the foreseeable future until every other team starts doing it more."

Much of the Rays' success on defense goes right to the fact that preventing runs is high on their to-do list. So a lot of brain power is vested in balancing the equation of weighing runs prevented against runs scored when deciding who they want on the team.

"That was something we talked about at the end of last season: Can we improve our offense while maintaining our high level of defense," Friedman said. "Obviously, that was optimal. It's easy to say and more difficult to do. We were fortunate to line up on that. We think we have improved our offense and we're going to maintain our high level of defense."

Reid Brignac personifies the way the team goes about its business. After putting up a decent offensive season in 2010, the young shortstop struggled at the plate last season. To Brignac's credit, those offensive struggles did not carry over to his defense.

"My dad's always told me there are two parts to this game, offense and defense," Brignac said. "If you're having a hard time on offense, you can't be concerned about it when you're playing defense. Once you hit, go play your defense. I've always tried to never bring my at-bats out to the field, because I know how important defense is.

"Playing my position, I know if I lack anything mentally on defense, I could jeopardize us a win. I really try to separate both. Whatever happens offensively -- strikeout or whatever -- to end the inning, when I get to shortstop, it's over with. I think if you bring your bats out onto the field, you're not going to give 100 percent on defense. You still have to hit, but defense is very important."

Evan Longoria has won two Gold Gloves at third base and Carlos Pena has won one at first, while Upton has played Gold Glove defense in center field -- though he hasn't been recognized for his efforts to date. While that group has stood out most, the Rays have no weaknesses in the field. Every player in the lineup is capable of making a jaw-dropping play, as well as consistently making the routine play.

The Rays have a solid group of starting pitchers. Any hurler is capable of going the distance on any given night. Combine those talents with those of the defense and you have a pretty formidable team.

"Pitching is defense and vice versa, so without one and two, it doesn't really go," David Price said. "[Our defense] is a big reason why [the pitchers] were very successful last year -- and we all know that.

"It makes it very easy for us to know that our defense is as good as it is and for us to go out there and throw quality strikes. Get that ball put in play, because the seven guys we have behind us and the one in front of us are pretty solid. These guys are good, so I want them to put the ball into play and have to beat me with base hits instead of walks. And our defense does a very good job of that."

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