When Yankees manager Joe Girardi talks about the things that impressed him most about the Rays last season, it wasn't necessarily the emergence of Evan Longoria or the bat of Carlos Peña.
It was their bench.
"Their role players played so well," Girardi said. "You expect Carl Crawford to have a good year, you expect Peña to have a good year. But you look at what their role players did in the situations, the numbers they put up. They were tremendous."
Said Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston: "They had a different hero every night."
The unsung heroes for the Rays in 2008 were from their bench, from utilityman Ben Zobrist to Willy Aybar, Gabe Gross and Shawn Riggans (now they have Gabe Kapler, too). Gross led the team with three walkoff RBIs, Zobrist turned into "Zorilla," and Aybar filled in admirably when Longoria missed 30 games. And don't forget Dan Johnson getting out of a cab to hit a pinch-hit homer off Jonathan Papelbon.
With manager Joe Maddon liking to use his bench a lot and injuries likely to pop up (see B.J. Upton's right quad), getting those same kinds of contributions, like Zobrist's pinch-hit grand slam Friday night, could play a huge role in the Rays defending their American League pennant.
"It's really as important as having your nine best players," bench coach Dave Martinez said. "We know on another team, they could possibly play every day. But they are just as valuable as an everyday player on this team."
With Zobrist, Aybar, Gross and Riggans all coming off the best seasons of their careers, they've come in with confidence and a better understanding of how to deal with the role. It's not an easy job. First, as Maddon said, you have to be willing to accept a secondary role, one where you might not play for days at a time. And you have to know how to stay ready.
"Hitting is such a feel thing, and it's tough to keep that good feeling when you're not playing," Gross said. "You do batting practice and then face (Josh Beckett), it's a little bit different."
Gross says Maddon makes them feel more comfortable because he "finds ways to get guys at-bats." Maddon said he'll give backup catcher Michel Hernandez (or Riggans when he's healthy) an average of 11/2 to two starts a week. Zobrist and Aybar play several positions, making it easier to get them in.
"We're definitely on our toes," said Zobrist, who has six homers in his past nine starts. "It keeps us ready to go on a moment's notice. I feel like everyone knows if you're on this team, you have a big role."
Gross and Kapler have experience platooning in the outfield, with Kapler the Brewers' top pinch-hitter last season, when he hit .294 with runners in scoring position and produced two extra-inning walkoff hits. But Kapler (4-for-23) and Gross (3-for-22) are struggling so far.
"I'm just not very good right now," Gross said. "I'll keep working at it. It'll come around."
Can they repeat their feats?
"You can't ever expect what we did last year to happen again, just because it's so hard, the game is so difficult," Zobrist said. "Hopefully we can do better."
Maddon will certainly give them that chance.
"It's a new year, and they have to get that confident feeling back," he said. "Regardless of what happened several months ago, you still have to prove to yourself today that you can get it done today or tomorrow, so you got to get them back out there so they can recapture that feeling."
Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.