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Four unheralded Rays have had a big impact

MIAMI — Individually, they didn't seem like much.

Eric Hinske was still on the free-agent market in February and signed for the bargain price of $800,000. Grant Balfour passed through waivers at the end of spring training, unclaimed for the $20,000 fee. Willy Aybar and Gabe Gross were considered spare parts by other teams and acquired in seemingly small deals for fringe prospects.

Collectively, they've had a huge impact.

And been the difference in about a dozen wins.

As much as the 44-31 Rays' success has been about improved pitching and defense and increased confidence, it can also be attributed to the accumulated efforts of an entire team.

From established stars such as Carl Crawford and Scott Kazmir and the touted prospects such as Evan Longoria to the seemingly bit players, it has truly been a mass production.

"It's been a different guy every day, and we kind of relish that," Hinske said. "It's been a team effort. Nobody really feels like they have to take it in their own hands."

Manager Joe Maddon likes to put it this way: "There's been a different bus driver every night."

And he likes it that way. "I do believe in that, and I do like that," he said. "I like that we're not just depending on one or two guys."

Consider Hinske.

He was having trouble finding a job after spending last season on Boston's bench and might have made the team only because Rocco Baldelli couldn't.

Nearly halfway through the season, he has started 57 games at five positions and shares the team lead in homers (12) and RBIs (39) and leads in slugging percentage (.510) and OPS (.849).

"I'm having a great time being able to go out there every day and getting a chance to play and contribute," Hinske said.

Consider Balfour.

With the claim to fame of being acquired from Milwaukee in July for Seth McClung, Balfour wasn't considered worthy of a bullpen spot this spring and was sent to Triple-A Durham after the other 29 teams passed on him.

But after a remarkable performance for the Bulls (one run and five hits in 232/3 innings) and some injuries in the Tampa Bay bullpen, he was called up May 30 and has become a key force, getting the biggest outs in several recent wins.

He has earned two victories and his first career save, with eight of his nine appearances scoreless, and heaps of praise from Maddon.

"You get put in good situations like that and you feel like you are actually making a difference with the team," Balfour said. "As far as contributing and being part of the wins, it's definitely gratifying."

Consider Aybar.

Acquired for reliever Jeff Ridgway in mid January from the Braves (who didn't seem to have room for him), Aybar looked like just a placeholder at third until Longoria arrived from Triple A and expedited the move when he hurt his left hamstring.

But since coming back May 29, he has proved a valuable contributor, filling in for injured Carlos Pena at first and impressing enough at the plate that Maddon will find a spot in the lineup for him, especially against left-handed starters.

"I appreciate what they've done for me (in terms of opportunity)," Aybar said through an interpreter. "This is a team. Everyone's doing their part."

And consider Gross.

About to be benched by the Brewers with the return of Mike Cameron, Gross was acquired in late April (for minor-league pitcher Josh Butler) to provide a sure hand in the depleted Rays outfield.

He has done that, but he has also had a direct hand in three walkoff victories, with a single to beat the Yankees and Mariano Rivera on May 13, a homer to beat the White Sox on June 1 and a double to beat the Astros on Saturday.

"Coming in after spring training and being able to contribute and come up with some key hits has really helped me feel a part of this whole thing," Gross said.

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com.

Four unheralded Rays have had a big impact 06/23/08 [Last modified: Saturday, June 28, 2008 6:52pm]
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