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Tampa Bay Rays determined to stop teams from running against them

MINNEAPOLIS — The Rays delight in the havoc caused by stealing bases, and the threat of doing so, having led the major leagues in larceny during Joe Maddon's five-plus seasons holding the green light.

But they decidedly detest being the victims, as they have increasingly been, and are determined to do something (actually several things) about it.

"I don't like it," Maddon said. "We really take a lot of pride in that not happening. We have to do better at that. I really talked about it a lot in spring training because I thought you were going to see a lot more of it from all the teams this year. …

"I don't want people doing to us what we do to them."

So far, they haven't done a very good job. The 21 steals against them (in 22 games) is the third most in the American League, and their five runners thrown out is more than just five teams.

And from early indications, the challenge is going to continue to grow with more teams on the run.

"The game's changing," bench coach Dave Martinez said. "Teams are building themselves more around speed, they're hitting and running more, they're bunting more, and they're stealing more.

"We do it as a big part of our game, so we're trying to defend it as much as possible."

The fastest way for the Rays to stop teams from running is to have their pitchers be quicker in their deliveries to the plate, increasing the chances for catchers John Jaso and Kelly Shoppach to throw them out.

But that has been a, um, slow process, so the Rays are resorting to other means: making more throws to first, having the pitchers vary their delivery speeds to disrupt the runners' timing and trying more pickoffs (with four so far, third most in the majors).

They are also paying much more attention to runners on second base, experimenting with a series of pickoff moves and set plays, seeking to cut down on thefts, or at least big leads.

"We're trying all kinds of things," Martinez said. "We want to keep double plays in order, we want guys to stay closer to the base to give our outfielders a chance to throw them out, we want to keep them from taking the extra base."

The difference between a quick-enough and a too-slow delivery to the plate is miniscule, but that fraction of a second can make all the difference.

A good delivery time from the stretch, Maddon said, is 1.3 seconds from when the pitcher first lifts his foot until the ball hits the catcher's glove. "At 1.35 to 1.4, the better baserunners can really take advantage," he said. "And at 1.4-plus, a lot of guys can take advantage."

The pitchers are just the first line of defense. The average time for a catcher to make the throw to second is 2.0 seconds, so any delay there can be just as impactful. And accuracy is important because the time it takes the infielder to make the tag is also part of the equation.

"We're not good," Maddon said. "We've got to get better. I've been on them about it."

Jeff Niemann, the tallest of the Rays starters at 6 feet 9, has, not surprisingly, been the biggest offender, with 26 of the past 29 basestealers against him (going back to 2009) reaching safely. Jaso has been the problem at the other end, throwing out just 1 of 17 so far this season (with Shoppach 3-of-8, and one caught stealing credited to a pitcher).

"Each person in that scheme has to do their job to shut down the running game," Shoppach said.

They are also trying to be more creative, especially at second base, where there typically isn't much done to defend runners. They've worked hard on a "quick pick" move where the pitcher whirls and throws as the infielder breaks — with some risk of course — and caught ex-mate Carl Crawford that way April 12. They have also sampled several set plays, where they fake to one base and throw to another.

"There's a lot of emphasis at second base," pitching coach Jim Hickey said. "You kind of forget about it. When you have a runner at first, you're conscious of the fact that he may steal, you're trying to be quick to home, you're trying to vary your times, you're trying to throw over. And at second base, you kind of get away from that a little bit."

Rays ace David Price has, of course, his own ideas on how better to control the running game: "Don't let them on base."

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com.

.FAST FACTS

Stolen moments

The Rays have been much more successful stealing bases than preventing them.

Taking off

Steals for Rays 24 Second most in the AL

Caught stealing 8 Third most in the AL

SB percentage 75 Seventh best in the AL

Holding on

Steals against Rays 21 Third most in the AL

Caught stealing 5 Tied for seventh most in the AL

SB percentage 19 10th best in the AL

Tampa Bay Rays determined to stop teams from running against them 04/25/11 [Last modified: Monday, April 25, 2011 11:10pm]

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