ST. PETERSBURG -- While he doesn't command the offensive figures of some of his teammates, Jason Bartlett has been extremely beneficial to the Rays lineup.
The shortstop -- who carried a six-game hitting streak going into Friday night's game -- is hitting .295 in his past 26 games, raising his season average to .251, and his on-base percentage to .305.
Getting the speedy infielder on base is crucial for the Rays, as Bartlett is third on the team with 10 stolen bases, including a career-high three steals on Thursday night.
"When you are not hitting well, not getting out there, you are going to lose a little risk-taking," manager Joe Maddon explained. "He needs [risk taking] to be a good base stealer."
Of course, getting on base obviously helps, and the 28-year-old Bartlett has been a regular on the basepaths for the Rays during their current 10-game homestand.
He enters Friday night's game batting .300 against left-handed pitching, and has begun to look more comfortable at the plate, where he frequents the No. 9 hole as a "second leadoff man".
"As he gets out there more often he's going to steal [even] more bases," Maddon said. "If you watch him when he makes turns, just home to first, he makes good turns. He accelerates really well going through the bag."
Bartlett has also excelled defensively, as he has committed only one error in the last 34 games, and has anchored the Rays' revamped infield this season.
Following Thursday's game, utility infielder Ben Zobrist was reassigned to Triple-A Durham in favor of pitcher Grant Balfour, who will slide into the bullpen. The move, while wise for the Rays 'pen, makes Bartlett's role even more critical. Third baseman Evan Longoria took reps at shortstop before Friday's game and will be used, Maddon said, in an emergency if Bartlett needs a day off.
But for the most part, Bartlett, who has started 50 of the club's 54 games -- and has battled a sore shoulder, sickness and family matters already this season -- will be the starting shortstop.
The Rays have four off-days in June -- more than April and May combined -- which should also make it easier for the team to keep their speedy shortstop running on all cylinders.
Brittany Ghiroli is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.