ST. PETERSBURG — Right-hander Jeff Niemann says there's a friendly, albeit intense competition among members of the Rays' young starting rotation.
"We all don't want to be the weak link," he said. "Everybody wants to step up and top each other, and it turns into positive vibes all around."
While the shutout thrown by David Price on Sunday has set the bar very high, it was just another example of how the Rays starters have been setting the tone this season.
They entered Monday ranked second in the American League in ERA (2.81) and innings (121 2/3) and are a big reason why the Rays (14-5) boast the best record in baseball. And if they keep it up, not only is manager Joe Maddon's goal of all five throwing 200 innings not out of the question, the trickle-down effects on the bullpen could help them get back into the playoffs.
"I really think they are just doing exactly what they are capable of," pitching coach Jim Hickey said of the rotation. "I don't think there's anybody who is performing above and beyond what their capacity is."
Maddon: "I really pay attention to these five guys, because they can be very special as a group for many years to come."
They're all young, with Shields, at 28, the elder statesman on the staff. And as they mature together, their competitive natures push each other in workouts and on the mound.
"We're all bulldogs out there," Shields said. "We don't ever want to get taken out of the game, no matter what. That's one through five. The 200-inning thing, that's more of like the thing to throw out there in the beginning of the year. We're definitely capable of doing that."
Hickey said what also makes the rotation special is how close they are. "That can't be overstated," he said. "I think it's extremely important on a winning club."
They encourage each other, compare notes on pitches and scouting reports and deliver postgame shaving cream facials. And they pick each other up on the mound; when right-hander Matt Garza had his first rough outing of the season Friday, giving up five runs over five innings, Shields told the next day's starter, Niemann, "It's time to stop the bleeding." Niemann responded by giving up three runs over 6 2/3 innings in a win, and Price topped it with a four-hitter Sunday.
Niemann, Garza and Price all have three quality starts in their first four outings, with the Rays allowing three or fewer runs in 10 of their past 12 games.
"It's kind of been easy on us position players, we haven't had to do too much there so far," centerfielder B.J. Upton said, smiling. "Just sit back and watch these guys, especially watching them develop over the last couple years. They put a lot of work in and it's starting to show."
The Rays starters last season tied the White Sox for the most innings in the AL with 970, and if they can top that, it'll make for a more rested bullpen down the stretch. Tampa Bay relievers led the AL with a combined 510 appearances last season.
"There's definitely a trickle-down effect," executive VP Andrew Friedman said. "If our starters are able to go six, seven, eight innings, it keeps the bullpen more rested, puts them in better position to get big outs on certain nights as opposed to always having to get them in the fifth or sixth innings, which we saw some of last year. The benefits are plentiful."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]