ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays have been described by some as a team that plays a National-League brand of baseball, backboned by stingy defense and smart baserunning.
Manager Joe Maddon said he believes that style serves them well in interleague play, which begins today with a three-game series against the Cardinals. And he has noticed signs of that approach spreading throughout the AL East, where strong pitching has made runs a premium.
"To be able to bunt, to hit and run, move runners and get some stress on the pitcher …that's how this game was written up originally," Maddon said. "There's more emphasis now to play that way, I believe. I know it is in our division."
Maddon said one of the biggest influences early in his coaching career was Gene Mauch, who managed four teams from 1960-87 and emphasized "small ball," base-to-base tactics over power hitting.
"You should always try to build your team with balance," Maddon said, "because when you get to the end of the year, when you get to September and October, one part of your game that can go away is the power."
With the added strategy involved in interleague games at NL parks — stemming from having no designated hitter — Maddon said he spends a lot more time playing the game in advance in his head.
"There's a different set of rules, different forms of thinking, different strategies in general," Maddon said. "It's an interesting game, and we're excited."
Some of the most excited Rays are the pitchers, who will get to hit for the first time this season. In preparation, they have had a series of batting practice sessions this month. In last year's interleague games, their .364 average was the best in the AL.
"I think the league will be more heads-up on us," LHP Trever Miller said, joking. "Maybe (we'll) get more breaking balls this time around."
A HUGE FAN: The Rays' first-ever trip to St. Louis will be special for Maddon, who grew up a huge Cardinals fan.
Born in Pennsylvania, Maddon said his connection with the Cardinals began in a unique way in 1962, when his father took him to a game at Yankee Stadium. The Yankees played the White Sox, and after it was over, Maddon exited through the centerfield wall and picked a Cardinals hat from a merchandise stand.
"A blue hat with the red S-T-L on it," he said. "I fell in love."
Maddon has met some of the Cardinals greats over his career, including Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Tim McCarver and Mike Shannon.
"If I see those old Cardinals players, I'll be 10 years old again," Maddon said.
UPTON NEXT?: With LHP Scott Kazmir agreeing to a contract that could keep him with the Rays through 2012, CF B.J. Upton would seem to be the next logical candidate for a long-term deal.
Upton, who won't be eligible for free agency until 2013, sounds like he would at least be willing to listen to what the Rays have to say.
"It's up to them,'' Upton said. "Of course, I want to be here. They've got a lot of the guys locked up. I'd love to know I'm going to be here with them."
BARTLETT out: SS Jason Bartlett was a late scratch Thursday, leaving the Trop to tend to a family matter. Maddon said Bartlett is expected to take a separate flight and join the team today in St. Louis.
MISCELLANY: Closer Troy Percival worked a perfect ninth for his 10th save in 12 chances. … The Rays' starting pitchers have a 1.20 ERA (60 innings, eight runs) over their past nine games. … SS Ben Zobrist made his season debut, going 0-for-2. … A court hearing in Tampa on RHP Al Reyes' arrest for his role in a bar fight last month was continued until June 19.
Times staff writer Marc Topkin contributed to this report.