Rays put defense of old on display

Rays put defense of old on display

ST. PETERSBURG -- Joe Maddon loved the way his Rays earned a 3-1 win on Wednesday. Not because of the three solo home runs -- he stressed that enough -- but because Tampa Bay displayed a formula that was so key to its run last season: strong pitching and phenomenal defense.

Jeff Niemann pitched 7 1/3 innings of one-run ball, and Jason Bartlett had the defensive play of the game when he made a diving stop on Cesar Izturis' liner to help his starter get out of a bases-loaded, no-out situation. Then, in the seventh, Carl Crawford leaped up against the wall to rob Felix Pie of extra bases with a great catch.

"The better we play [defense], the better chance we have of playing in October this year," Maddon said before the series finale against the Orioles at Tropicana Field on Thursday. "We're going to hit enough, and we're going to do all the other stuff enough, but if we start catching the ball like that, that's going to give us our best chance."

The Rays have essentially the same group of position players as last year, although second baseman Akinori Iwamura is on a rehab assignment and Tampa Bay has a bit of a revolving door in right field. However, the numbers don't show the defense being as good.

Last year, 21 Major League teams had more errors than the Rays, who were tied for eighth in fielding percentage. This season, Tampa Bay's defense is tied for 19th in fielding percentage (.983) and tied for the ninth-most errors in the big leagues.

But numbers like those tend to skew the perception of a team's ability to play defense. Take Bartlett's diving stop, for example. If the shortstop doesn't get to it and it results in an RBI single, there is no error, but at least one more run is on the board.

But Bartlett fully extended to his left, knocked it down and forced out Matt Wieters at home, one play before turning a double play to end the fifth inning.

It's that type of aggressiveness first baseman Carlos Pena said this group still has, and he believes that's what's most important.

"Sometimes errors are not the measure of good defense. I think most of the time it's like that," Pena said. "You can go through a game and not make any errors, but at the same time, you didn't make enough significant plays.

"We're going to err on the side of aggressiveness. We're not afraid to make a mistake; we're not afraid to make errors. I think we would make less errors if we would play a little bit more protective, but we wouldn't impact this ballclub with our glove."

Slick glove work has a way of firing up a team. After Wednesday night's victory, Bartlett talked about how his plays got everybody going, saying: "We come in the dugout, especially after a double play, and guys are pumped up. Guys want to go out there and get some runs and kind of get the ball rolling."

If the old adage is true, and pitching and defense indeed is the formula for winning baseball, then the Rays were right on track.

But Pena insists it isn't because they suddenly turned back into last year's team. They just got more of a chance to show what they can do.

"We actually bring the same group of guys, the same intensity every single game, and sometimes the ball bounces a different way," Pena said. "I think the statement that makes the most sense here is, we're a great defensive ballclub on any given day, and every day we come out and play great defense.

"Yesterday, it just so happened that it was obvious."

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