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Ten moves that turned around the Rays

Ten decisions — some obvious, some obscure; some easy, some agonizing — that made this season what it was for the Rays:

Shifting Akinori Iwamura from third base to second.

Knowing rookie 3B Evan Longoria would join the team at some point, the Rays avoided potential awkwardness, if not conflict, during the season by being proactive at the end of 2007. Iwamura knew the plan and spent the winter learning the position, and what made it work was how well he has played at second (his seven errors are third fewest among major-league 2B) and how professionally he handled it. The markedly improved infield defense is among the biggest reasons for their 2008 success.

Trading OF Delmon Young in a deal for SS Jason Bartlett and RHP Matt Garza.

It took a lot to trade Young, no matter how prickly he was, based on his potential. They wanted a lot back, and when they got it, they made the deal, and it's hard to imagine the Rays could have gotten here without Bartlett. Or — given the addition-by-subtraction in the clubhouse — with Young.

Signing RHP Troy Percival to a two-year, $8-million deal.

The bullpen was the biggest problem in 2007, and the signing sent the message (including to the rest of the team) that they were serious about fixing it, bringing in one of the game's best and paying to do so. Late-season struggles aside, Percival, with his pitching and leadership, has had a huge hand in their success.

Moving LHP J.P. Howell into the bullpen.

As a starter, Howell didn't look like he'd amount to much with a 5-14 record and 6.34 ERA in 33 games before this season. In his first year as a reliever, he has been invaluable, to the extent that manager Joe Maddon mentions him as a team MVP candidate. Howell, 25, works extended innings, gets huge outs, strands baserunners and looks like he has been doing it forever.

Picking Eric Hinske over Joel Guzman for the final roster spot out of spring training.

Hinske was picked for being the "more professional" hitter, and he has showed it, starting more than 110 games, hitting 20 homers, knocking in 60 runs and being a big reason the Rays survived the absence of Carl Crawford. Guzman was designated for assignment after yet another so-so season at Triple A.

Promoting 3B Evan Longoria from Triple A just 10 days into the season.

Whatever "seasoning" they felt Longoria needed, the Rays did the right thing when starting 3B Willy Aybar was injured by putting aside potential contractual implications and promoting Longoria (who was hitting .200 at the time). His All-Star appearance, 27 homers, 85 RBIs (despite missing five weeks) and spectacular defense just prove it over and over.

Acquiring OF Gabe Gross from Milwaukee in April.

Like the offseason deal for INF Willy Aybar, the Rays saw something in a player who was a part-timer elsewhere and reaped huge benefits, more than filling their need for a smooth-fielding outfielder. Gross, acquired for minor-league P Josh Butler, has started 79 games and played in another 48. He won three games with walkoff hits, flashed routinely strong defense and racked up a career-best 13 homers.

Intentionally walking Texas slugger Josh Hamilton with the bases loaded.

Two nights after the Upton incident, Maddon showed off again. This time it was what Rays insiders already knew: that he willfully disregards caution and conventional strategy. Like the defensive shifts, oddly timed pitching changes and sometimes against-logic lineups, Maddon has created an edge by creating doubt in opposing managers over what he'll do and when he'll do it.

Jonny Gomes charging in from rightfield during spring training clash with Yankees.

The Rays talked about how they were tired of being pushed around by the AL East bullies, and they showed it by how they reacted after Shelley Duncan's lame attempt at retaliation for Elliot Johnson's collision at home plate in an earlier exhibition. This incident, like a June clash in Boston, was a big element in the new attitude they developed.

Pulling B.J. Upton off the field during the Aug. 15 game in Texas.

Manager Joe Maddon had already blasted the team about not hustling (which he considers sacrilegious) and had benched Upton for a game the previous week. But when Upton dallied again, Maddon had to show the rest of the team (and everyone else) just how serious he was, taking the extraordinary and, for Upton, embarrassing step.

Ten moves that turned around the Rays 10/01/08 [Last modified: Sunday, October 5, 2008 9:41am]
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