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Rays credit stronger defense with overall improvement

ST. LOUIS — The Rays defense has been so good that one of the Tampa Bay area's resident experts has noticed.

Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin called the team last week to pass on his congratulations and encourage manager Joe Maddon to keep stressing that style of play. Maddon was so enthused he immediately invited Kiffin to address the team, probably during the next homestand.

"Who better than Monte Kiffin to know the value of defense in winning a championship?" Maddon said.

Simply, the improved defense has been among the reasons why the Rays have done better so far. And it might be the biggest reason why they can keep winning, since defense doesn't tend to slump as hitting and pitching do.

"Everyone looks at this game from an offensive perspective," Maddon said, "but if you look at it historically, the teams that pitch and play defense are the ones that normally win."

Executive VP Andrew Friedman made it an offseason priority to improve one of the AL's worst defenses; the Rays were tied for last with a .980 fielding percentage and made the second-most errors, 117, .72 per game.

So far, they've done even better than expected, Maddon said. With the additions of Jason Bartlett at shortstop and (granted, sooner than expected) Evan Longoria at third, the shift of Akinori Iwamura to second and the improvement of B.J. Upton in center and Dioner Navarro behind the plate, the Rays are now among the league's best. They went into play Saturday with the third-best fielding percentage (.987) and third-fewest errors, 20, .48 per game.

At that rate, defense might end up being something lots of people consider worth talking about. "Eventually it does," Maddon said. "Because it wins games."

Rays credit stronger defense with overall improvement 05/17/08 [Last modified: Saturday, May 17, 2008 8:08pm]
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