There are several reasons why the Rays are off to such a good start and heading into a who-would've-thunk-it tussle for first place with the Orioles starting tonight in Baltimore.
But none bigger than the guys who have been finishing the games.
The revamped bullpen has been a source of relief and salvation, as the Rays have the best penmanship in the majors with a 2.26 ERA — and the consistency and confidence that go with it.
Even more so than they expected.
"Honestly, we knew they were good and we were going to be better," manager Joe Maddon said, "but to this extent? There's no way I would have guessed all this. There's no way."
The bullpen is improved for several reasons. First, the Rays have better, more experienced and more professional relievers. Having left-handers Trever Miller and J.P. Howell allows Maddon to create matchups to their advantage. Dan Wheeler has come back strong from a poor 2007. And Troy Percival provides leadership, calm and confidence to go along with his 0.00 ERA and three baserunners allowed through nine games.
"There's a tremendous amount of competition among that group," Maddon said. "Nobody wants to let the group down. And Percy is in the middle of this whole thing, and I know how he is when he talks about his bullpen. There's definitely a different attitude about the group."
As much as the Rays struggled last season with a bullpen that was historically bad, they have benefited from the stellar early performance this season, with an 11-1 record in games they've led after six innings.
How much does it change things? Plenty, from the perspective of a position player, a starter and the manager:
Carl Crawford, leftfielder
"It's just a different feeling when you know there's a good chance the game is going to be closed out. You're not really worried about it as much now. It's a little less stressful.
"We've got veterans here. You can tell they're not really thinking about what they're going to do. They get the ball and they're making the next pitch keeping the tempo going instead of grabbing it, thinking, 'What I'm going to do here,' and just looking nervous and stuff.
"These guys look real confident, and that keeps us confident, keeps us on our toes, so that when the ball is hit real sharp and quick, we're right there to make a play."
Jason Hammel, starting pitcher
"It's huge. You're comfortable coming out of a game with a lead. Even a tie ball game, you're not worried about all of a sudden maybe a run comes across and it's game over. It's awesome. It makes pitching with a lead that much more comfortable. You can still be aggressive. One run can definitely be a comfortable lead with that bullpen. … It's unbelievable. It's so much different of a feeling."
Joe Maddon, manager
"Now before the game you can map out a plan and kind of stay with it because you have a better idea of what to expect from each guy on a nightly basis. … They're just a lot more at ease in their skin and their role than we've had in the past. …
"Once a guy's in the game, you have confidence that he can get through some issues. And if it gets a little bit hot, you still might leave him out there, where in the past if it got a little bit hot, you knew you had to get the next guy right out there.
"There's a little bit more of a comfort zone. The two-run or three-run lead is a lot more formidable than it used to be, basically. … Players feel that if they catch a lead, there's a pretty good chance we can hold it now."
Marc Topkin can be reached at