Maddon identifies pair of unsung heroes

Maddon identifies unsung heroes

ST. PETERSBURG -- While the highlight-reel plays from the likes of Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton and Evan Longoria have been much appreciated, manager Joe Maddon singled out a pair of under-the-radar players as the unsung heroes in the Rays' early goings.

"I really believe if you had to take an MVP vote after six weeks, I'd give it to J.P. [Howell] and [Jason] Bartlett based on what they've done," Maddon said.

"To this point in the year, those two guys have been as valuable as anyone else."

Howell, who made his first Opening Day roster this season in the bullpen, has provided crucial stability in the middle relief role. The lefty has posted a 2.88 ERA over 11 games, and entering Monday, he leads the American League in relief innings (25) and in relief appearances lasting three-plus innings (six).

The young southpaw has been dominant against left-handed hitters, who are averaging a paltry .172, but is also impressive on the other side of the plate. Howell has held right-handed batters to a .230 average (14-of-61), allowing only one home run.

"When you get a ball moving in both directions, it's much more difficult to deal with," Maddon explained. "He's got a good combination of a good breaking ball coming at them, a good fastball going away from them and then the changeup -- most lefties don't have that combination."

In Sunday's victory over the Angels, Howell pitched three scoreless frames to give the Rays a chance to come back and eventually win the game, 8-5. He also pitched the 11th through 13th innings, sealing an extra-innings win in Toronto.

The youngest Ray in the 'pen, the 25-year-old Howell credits the veteran relievers -- who often talk over the game's hitters -- for aiding his adjustment to the new role. He also credits his success against right-handed hitters to spending the majority of his career as a starter, where there are often a plethora of right-handed bats.

"J.P. has really held the entire bullpen together, and Bartlett has really solidified our defense," Maddon said. "The biggest reason why we've done so well to this point is because of our defense, and it has spilled over to the other parts of our game. So J.B. has been a cornerstone there, [and] J.P. has been a guy in the bullpen."

Bartlett, acquired in a trade with the Twins in the offseason, has combined with second baseman Akinori Iwamura to provided crucial defense in the middle of the infield.

The shortstop has started 36 of 38 games, compiling a .976 fielding percentage, with 22 double plays entering Monday's series opener vs. the Yankees.

Individual accolades aside, the red-hot Rays are riding a nine-game home winning streak, and the enthusiasm is at an all-time high for the franchise.

"I mean, that's what you train for," Howell said. "The goal is to have a 0.00 ERA, but [you] just want to be a help in any way you can be, help the team win. I'm just glad I have a role."

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