ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays couldn't have asked for more out of closer Rafael Soriano.
Soriano picked up his 10th save in 10 chances Sunday against the Mariners, his former team, and has given Tampa Bay the security blanket it sought when it acquired the hard-throwing right-hander in the offseason from the Braves and signed him to a one-year, $7.25 million deal.
No pitcher this year has converted more consecutive saves to begin the season. The Rays blew 22 saves last season, eighth-most in the majors.
"What can I say? You hand the ball over in the ninth and you know something is going to be taken care of," RHP Matt Garza said. "He's been rock solid. … When we've needed him, he's been there the whole time. It's awesome."
Said C Dioner Navarro: "He's the man, he's got that closer's demeanor, he understands what he has to do and he goes out there and executes his plan."
Manager Joe Maddon said Soriano's presence, and performance, have a trickle-down effect on the entire bullpen, which has compiled a 1.69 ERA in the past 28 games.
"It makes a difference as you're planning the sixth or the seventh or eighth inning," Maddon said. "Knowing that he's there and that's covered permits you to do things that we weren't able to do in the past, so it's a nice toy."
STEPPING IN: Hank Blalock said he was excited to make his Rays debut Sunday, starting at first base and going 0-for-3 with two strikeouts. Maddon gave Blalock the nod due to his previous success against Mariners LHP Cliff Lee, plus against other lefties while at Triple-A Durham.
MEDICAL MATTERS: LHP J.P. Howell (shoulder strain) will take another big step in his recovery today by throwing a simulated game at Tropicana Field. Maddon said Howell will be able to throw at maximum velocity with no restrictions, and if everything goes well, he could begin a rehab assignment late this week or early next.
FAMILIAR FACE: Hitting coach Derek Shelton, who spent the previous seven seasons in the Indians organization, said he's looking forward to seeing a lot of familiar faces and old friends today when Cleveland arrives for a two-game series.
"It'll be fun, it'll be nice to see them," he said. "When you have hitters, you kind of consider them your guys. I know a lot of the staff, so it'll be interesting."
IN A PINCH: Maddon continued to praise rookie Reid Brignac, whom he says has "exceeded expectations" in many ways, including his pinch-hitting (4-for-7 with five RBIs), especially considering he had very little experience in that role. "He's playing off the bench like a veteran right now," Maddon said. "The best way I can describe him: He stays ready all the time, he likes the big leagues, wants to stay in the big leagues and will do whatever it takes in the big leagues until it's his turn to play shortstop."
K KING: RHP James Shields is racking up strikeouts more than he ever has in his career, putting up three double-digit strikeout games in his past four after going 84 outings without one. Maddon said there are two key reasons: Shields is throwing his fastball where he wants to; and he has much better depth on his changeup. "He's still using his cutter but not as often. He's using his curveball, but I think he's going primarily to fastball and changeup and incorporating the other pitches," Maddon said. "I think it's just better utilization of his weapons."
MISCELLANY: The Rays signed RHP Ricky Orta, a former University of Miami standout, to a minor-league contract; he is recovering from spring elbow-ligament replacement surgery and will rehab in Port Charlotte. … Garza was pulled after 100 pitches, and Maddon said he's going to keep an eye on all of the starters, who he says have already thrown a lot of pitches.