Commentary

Willing to work past 5

Tampa Bay Rays starters challenging each other to go deep into games

Updated: May 25, 2010, 1:15 PM ET
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

The Tampa Bay Rays' rotation is an eclectic mix of personalities and background stories. David Price was a big-time prospect out of Vanderbilt, and Jeff Niemann arrived with lots of hype out of Rice. Matt Garza is the strong-willed and occasionally stubborn California kid, and Wade Davis the quiet and earnest Floridian who spurned the Gators to sign out of high school.

Davis is a second cousin of former Cubs catcher Jody Davis. James Shields, the staff leader and resident quote machine, is a first cousin of Giants center fielder Aaron Rowand. It's a genetic doubleheader.

The five Tampa pitchers genuinely care about and root for one another. Check out a Rays game, and when one starter bounds off the mound between innings, the other four are routinely flanking the dugout steps waiting to encourage him or slap his hand.

They also have a mutual affinity for work. Scratch the surface, and these guys are all channeling Old Hoss Radbourn.

"They want to pitch nine innings, all of them," said Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon. "They hate it when I take them out. They hate the term 'pitch count.' I love that they hate all that stuff. They abhor all that stuff, and I love that about them."

The mindset is sufficiently ingrained that a garden-variety "five and fly" appearance qualifies a pitcher for derision. A Rays starter might live to tell about it if he wears an ugly shirt to the park or shanks a drive during a group golf outing. But if he falls short of the staff standard for an honest day's pay, he's a marked man.

"If you only go six innings, you're going to get made fun of," said Price, who reveals that he got "crushed" by his teammates after a recent six-inning, 97-pitch appearance against Cleveland. "It's ridiculous."

And if you go five?

"Don't come to the field the next day," Price said.

As the Rays try to build upon a major league-best 32-13 start, pitching is at the heart of the team's success. Even after back-to-back clunkers by Price in Houston and Davis against Boston, Tampa Bay's starters are 25-8 with a 2.84 ERA. The Seattle and New York rotations rank next in the American League with ERAs of 3.81, almost a full run behind the Rays.

Shields has a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 33-2 in May. Garza, a righty, is holding left-handed hitters to a .272 slugging percentage. Price, a lefty, has limited righties to a batting average of .216.

This run of dominance is particularly impressive given the franchise's checkered history with developing arms from within. Go back to the "Devil Rays" days, and you might recall Tampa Bay management signing Cuban defector Rolando Arrojo for $7 million, shelling out $13 million-plus for "loophole" free agents Matt White and Bobby Seay, and getting precious little production from high draft picks Dewon Brazelton, Jason Standridge, Wade Townsend and Jon Switzer.

Now, all of a sudden, Rays outfielder B.J. Upton looks in from his perch in center and sees late and funky swings night after night by the opposition.

"There's not a slouch in our rotation," Upton said. "You almost have to stand out there and get the view I get, because it's unbelievable. Just the control of their pitches and their whole attitude. When they're out there, they don't want anybody to get a hit. You can see it."

Everybody knows the Rays are good. The question is, can they maintain this pace for an entire season?

In Tampa Bay's first 45 games, a starting pitcher has failed to go five innings only twice. It happened April 8 when Niemann suffered a bruised right shoulder on a line drive by Baltimore's Miguel Tejada and left the game as a precaution in the second inning. And Monday night at Tropicana Field, Davis threw a whopping 97 pitches in 3 2/3 innings in a 6-1 loss to the Red Sox.

The Rays have designs on becoming the 21st team in the modern era and only the fourth staff since 1930 to produce five 200-inning pitchers. The last team to do it was the 1980 Oakland Athletics, with a rotation of Matt Keough, Brian Kingman, Rick Langford, Steve McCatty and Mike Norris. Before that, you have to go back to the 1977 Dodgers, led by workhorses Don Sutton, Burt Hooton and Tommy John. And before that, it was the Jim Bunning-led Tigers of 1957.

With an average age of 25.6, the Rays have the second-youngest rotation in the majors behind Detroit. Manager Billy Martin burned out that Oakland staff 30 years ago, and Maddon and pitching coach Jim Hickey are determined not to jeopardize careers for the sake of short-term expediency.

[+] EnlargeJames Shields
AP Photo/Kathy WillensJames Shields, the Rays' elder statesman at 28 years old, has pitched into the seventh inning in six of his past seven starts.
"We as an organization are extremely aware of it, and we're very proactive in limiting [their workloads]," Hickey said. "Starting pitching is basically the lifeblood of our organization, and it's going to be for a long time. Our means are a little different than the New Yorks and Bostons and the other organizations in this division that we're chasing. We can't afford to have one of these assets go down."

Shields has averaged 216 innings over the past three seasons, so barring injury, he's a lock to reach 200. The same can be said for Garza. He threw 203 innings last season, and the Rays generally give him more rope than the team's other starters. Garza has logged 117, 115 and 114 pitches in separate outings this season.

Maddon and Hickey are treading a bit more carefully with the three other starters. As a general guideline, no one's innings will increase by more than 20 percent over a year ago. That leaves Niemann, who threw 180 innings as a rookie in 2009, with a targeted maximum of 216. Davis, who threw 195 innings between Triple-A Durham and Tampa Bay last year, has also laid the groundwork to take the next step.

Price merits the closest scrutiny, after throwing 162 2/3 innings between the minors and majors last season. When he labored early in a 10-6 victory over Houston on Sunday, Maddon lifted him after five innings and 88 pitches.

The process isn't quite as simple as counting innings. The Rays know they will be piling on more starts if the team makes the postseason. And as Detroit manager Jim Leyland observed last year when asked about rookie Rick Porcello's workload, "People don't realize that 85 pitches in the big leagues is a lot more difficult than 85 pitches in A-ball."

Here's why: Breathers aren't permissible in the big leagues, and that goes double when facing the loaded lineups in the American League East. The Red Sox and Yankees don't chase many pitches outside the strike zone, so pitchers have to be sharp to navigate those batting orders. Hickey, who's been around, refers to the division as a "meat grinder," and veteran outfielder Gabe Kapler calls it a "beast."

"If you're David Price and you're pitching in Double-A and trying to develop your changeup, someone might tell you prior to the game, 'Look, don't worry about the results,'" Hickey said. "Here it's about winning -- end of story. From pitch No. 1, you better be on point."

Nothing helps a young pitcher cope like maturity and the ability to adapt. Shields, a fastball-changeup pitcher early in his career, has rounded out his arsenal with a reliable breaking pitch. Price arrived as a fastball-slider guy, and now he throws two-seam and four-seam fastballs, a slider, curveball and change.

"If you tell them, 'You need to cut the ball this way or make it move that way,' they can do it," Hickey said. "I don't care if it's improving their time to home plate or working on a pickoff move or working on a new pitch. They're open to it and they have the aptitude to do it."

Just in case one of Tampa's starters falters, the Rays have a ready-made replacement: Jeremy Hellickson, the next pitcher off the assembly line, has a 6-2 record with 55 strikeouts in 50 innings for Triple-A Durham. Hellickson has the requisite unflappable demeanor and a deceptive delivery that adds life to a 92-93 mph fastball. He's legit.

But unless an injury hits the rotation, he'll have to wait his turn to crack the fraternity. Shields, Garza, Niemann, Price and Davis have developed a friendly competition that extends from the mound to the weight room to shagging balls in the outfield. And when things get slow, they keep each other alert with the occasional barb or practical joke.

"Your head is on a swivel all the time with those guys," Niemann said. "You can never get too comfortable."

Just imagine how the opposing hitters must feel.

Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License To Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer