One key to the Rays' run of three playoff appearances in the past four years has been their bullpen.
There was the LHP J.P. Howell-RHP Grant Balfour bridge to closer Troy Percival in the 2008 World Series run, and the dominating back-end combo of RHP Joaquin Benoit-RHP Rafael Soriano in 2010.
But manager Joe Maddon believes this year's group, which has posted a 1.91 ERA since the All-Star break, is tough to top.
"This is as good as it's been," Maddon said. "I don't think any bullpen we've had has been better than this one, in regards to balance, experience and the ability to match up in different moments."
It has been a pleasant surprise for the Rays, considering that last year's closer, RHP Kyle Farnsworth, missed the first three months due to an elbow strain. RHP Fernando Rodney has stepped up with an All-Star performance, with 27 saves in 28 chances.
RHP Joel Peralta has been an important setup man, like last year, and Howell (with 16 consecutive scoreless innings) looks like he did before 2010 shoulder surgery. LHP Jake McGee has grown into a late-inning weapon, RHP Burke Badenhop has a 2.35 ERA since the start of May and RHP Wade Davis has made an impressive transition from the rotation.
"They've picked us up all year," starting RHP Jeremy Hellickson said. "They've done a great job."
IN THE FULD: The Rays are expected to activate OF Sam Fuld (right wrist surgery) today from the disabled list and plan to use him as a fourth outfielder/pinch-hitter. He'll take the open spot on the roster, as RH reliever Brandon Gomes was called up and sent back down Sunday.
Fuld, who has been out since having surgery the last week of spring training, hit .161 (5-for-31) in 10 rehab games for Class A Charlotte and Triple-A Durham. Maddon said having Fuld in the fold will allow him to give outfielders such as CF B.J. Upton and LF Desmond Jennings days off more readily against tough right-handed pitchers; Upton and Jennings started all of the 10 games on the homestand.
"You saw what he did for us last year — he was a little bit of a catalyst last year," Maddon said. "So we'll see what happens with that."
ON THE MEND: Executive VP Andrew Friedman, speaking on 620-AM Monday morning with Times staff writers Marc Topkin and Rick Stroud, said "if/when" 3B Evan Longoria (partially torn left hamstring) returns, "we're never really going to feel incredibly confident about it until the end of the year."
"He's going to play through some pain," Friedman said. "I think it's something that's going to take until the offseason to really address."
Longoria is traveling with the team on its upcoming road trip to increase his baseball activities, and Friedman said the Rays should have a better feel for the prognosis by the end of the week. But Friedman said Longoria could come back sooner as DH.
MISCELLANY: 3B Richie Shaffer, the Rays' first-round pick, made his professional debut Monday for Hudson Valley, going 1-for-3. … RHP Jeff Niemann (broken right fibula) will travel with the team.
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.