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Starting rotation may make Tampa Bay Rays virtually slump-proof

ST. PETERSBURG — In case you had not noticed, Rays hitters have cooled off.

Carlos Peña is hitless in his past 12 at-bats with seven strikeouts. B.J. Upton is 0-for-13 with four strikeouts. Tampa Bay has scored seven runs in its past 31 innings, which sounds even worse when you know the Rays scored 42 in the previous 31.

So it's entirely reasonable to wonder if a tremendous start is about to go splat. To worry if the law of baseball averages, or maybe the curse of Vinny Castilla, is finally catching up to Tampa Bay.

Except for this:

The Rays squeezed out a 1-0 win against Kansas City on Sunday and in the previous two games had the potential winning run at the plate in the final inning. And what, you may ask, does this prove?

That the way this starting rotation is pitching, the Rays are pretty slump-resistant.

This doesn't mean Tampa Bay is infallible. It doesn't mean there won't be rough stretches ahead. In fact, this upcoming nine-game, West Coast trip looks particularly heinous.

But as long as this rotation continues to perform up to expectations, the Rays should be immune from the kind of 2-8 cold spells that can be disastrous in the American League East.

"On a nightly basis, our position players, our team, the manager, the coaches believe, when they look out on the mound, that we have a really good chance of winning," manager Joe Maddon said. "That is a great feeling.

"Our starting pitchers give us a good feeling every night."

At this point, a better feeling than any other rotation in the AL. Tampa Bay starters have a better record (14-3) and a lower ERA (2.64) and have averaged more innings (61/3 per start) than any group in the league.

Is there anything a manager wants more out of life?

"Nothing," Maddon said. "Nothing.

"Honestly, the game could have been called pitching. Easily. It could have been called pitching as opposed to baseball, and they would have been absolutely correct."

Good starting pitching forgives all manner of sins. You have a bullpen that is missing one of its top relievers? It doesn't hurt nearly as much when your starters are consistently pitching into the seventh inning. You have an offense that struggles against left-handers? It isn't quite so worrisome when you're capable of winning 3-2 or 2-1 games.

The truth is, the Rays rarely lose as long as they get the bare minimum out of the offense. Since the beginning of last season, Tampa Bay is 89-20 (.817) when scoring four runs or more. That's the best winning percentage in the majors in those types of games.

"Really good starting pitching gives you a chance to win every single ball game. There's no secret to that," Peña said. "It just gives you a little bit of breathing room.

"We get to the ballpark every day knowing if we execute a play here or there, or get a big hit here or there, we've got ourselves a shot at winning the ball game."

This is the way the franchise was constructed, and it's pretty much the easiest way a low-revenue team can be a legitimate contender.

It costs too much money to build a lineup as potent as the Yankees, but the Rays can develop enough young pitchers to make it work.

The average age of Tampa Bay's five starters is 26. The average salary is $1.65 million.

Or, another way to look at it:

The Rays' rotation is making $8.28 million this season. The Yankees' rotation is making $63.19 million.

"It's an extremely talented group. Between the combination of age and talent, I don't think there's anybody that can match them," pitching coach Jim Hickey said. "There may be a more talented rotation, there may be better top-end type of pitchers, but for the most part, those are the Halladays and the Sabathias who are 31 or 32 years old. It's hard to find our entire package."

The key is that no one appears to be pitching above his head. If anything, most of these guys have not reached their peak.

Matt Garza should be better than he was in 2009. David Price will certainly be better than he was as a rookie. Wade Davis, who threw seven shutout innings against the Royals on Sunday, is improving from start to start.

In between starts, Hickey and Davis worked to remove some of the mechanical flaws from the right-hander's delivery and get him moving forward and backward instead of side to side. Davis said he could feel the difference Sunday, and when he started to get out of synch and walked David DeJesus to put two men on in the fifth, Hickey came to the mound to remind him of that.

One pitch later, Davis was out of the inning.

"We've got five skillful guys," Maddon said. "Five very skillful starters.

"I don't see anybody as exceeding expectations right now."

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Starting rotation may make Tampa Bay Rays virtually slump-proof 05/02/10 [Last modified: Sunday, May 2, 2010 11:45pm]
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