Quick talk sparked Tampa Bay Rays rotation's upswing

James Shields delivers against the Twins on May 29. His start began a streak of six consecutive good ones for the rotation.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

James Shields delivers against the Twins on May 29. His start began a streak of six consecutive good ones for the rotation.

NEW YORK — The Rays' resurgence, or at least what they hope is such, began May 29 when James Shields delivered the first of six consecutive strong starts that led to a 5-1 homestand.

But it really started two days earlier, during batting practice before a game in Cleveland, when manager Joe Maddon had a little chat in the outfield with the veteran leader of the staff.

Maddon thought the starters were putting too much pressure on themselves because they knew the bullpen was beaten up, and he wanted Shields to set a different tone when he opened the homestand against the Twins.

"He said, 'Look, don't put too much pressure on yourself, and get these guys going,' " Shields said Friday of the chat.

"And I basically just went around — I didn't have any special talks with anybody — I just kind of went, 'Hey we need to pick it up a little bit. Let's go. We need to start going deeper into games and being more methodical with our pitches. And if we give up a four-spot, so what? We have the best-hitting team in the league right now.' "

Shields' words were good. His performance that night was better: seven innings, two runs and one big win, snapping a losing streak that had grown to five games.

And the desired carryover effect has been achieved. Beginning with that game, the starters have been sizzling, compiling a 2.08 ERA and allowing a .205 average. Each has had a solid outing, including previously struggling Andy Sonnanstine and emerging Jeff Niemann. Shields has had two good outings, with David Price up today — after Friday's rainout with the Yankees — to keep the streak going.

"We came back from Cleveland, we had seen that we didn't do our job, and it kind of ate at us and ate at us," Matt Garza said. "Shields came out and set the tone and just set the tone for the entire weekend, and you don't want to be the guy to fall short."

The competition is supposed to be with the opposing team, but the internal battles — and trash-talking — among the Rays' starters can be just as intense. A lot of that can be attributed to Price, the 23-year-old sensation whose promotion from Triple-A Durham seemed to energize the team.

"It's just his attitude," Shields said. "He wants the baseball. He wants to be that guy. We have to tone him down a little bit, but that's a good thing."

Price said that's just the way he rolls.

"We're all feeding off each other, and it's been a good thing," he said. "We've got a good thing going on with the five guys we've got right now. Everybody's trying to one-up everybody else, and if you do that, mix in a good start, then everybody mixes in a good start, and you've got five good ones in a row.

"Everybody's trying to build off everyone else, and it's been going fairly well right now."

Maddon has an interesting take. He says Shields and Garza have been consistently good all season, so the difference is in the other three spots.

Niemann "all of a sudden is becoming pretty good" and shares the team lead in wins (five) with Shields. Sonnanstine has been up and down but was on a pretty good rise Tuesday in a win against the Royals. And Price, who took the place of struggling Scott Kazmir, is providing the difference the Rays expected.

"There's been some consistency there, and there's always been some potential,'' Maddon said. "The potential has finally caught up a bit, and now they've pitched well."

Quick talk sparked Tampa Bay Rays rotation's upswing 06/05/09 [Last modified: Saturday, June 6, 2009 6:22am]

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