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Uphill climb for Tampa Bay Rays' Jason Bartlett hits All-Star heights

Rays shortstop Jason Bartlett said that about a month into this season, his agent, Ryan Ware, first broached the subject of the All-Star Game.

"He said, 'You know, Joe (Maddon) is going to be the manager,' " Bartlett remembered. "I was like, 'Yeah. But I want to earn it.' "

That mentality is nothing new to Bartlett, who has had to continually prove himself throughout his journey from unheralded prospect to Rays team MVP in their World Series run.

Bartlett, a native of Mountain View, Calif., said he didn't even start his junior year in high school. He was drafted in the 13th round as a senior by the Padres in 2001.

"Thirteenth-round seniors typically don't play in the big leagues — much less be an All-Star," longtime Twins scout John Leavitt said. "It's an amazing story."

Said Ware: "He's truly a guy who has fought and scratched and clawed for everything he's gotten in this game. He wasn't a high draft pick, didn't rocket through the minor leagues. He earned it every step of the way."

The Rays saw Bartlett's value after he arrived before the 2008 season with right-hander Matt Garza in the Delmon Young deal. His defensive handiwork solidified the Rays infield, his baserunning and instincts little things that played a big role.

This year, Bartlett has been even better, with his .358 batting average among the majors' best and his eight home runs a welcome surprise considering he had 11 in his first 1,533 at-bats.

"Last year he was voted as our MVP, and a lot of people questioned that," Maddon said. "Now you're seeing what he does for our team when he's here right now. By far, even though he played so well last year, I think he's played even better this year. … He's really elevated his game."

Bartlett said it didn't really sink in he was an All-Star until he was lying in bed Saturday night. He texted his older brother, Jeff, reminiscing about how far he had come from playing Wiffle Ball in the front yard.

Bartlett, 29, said that with the road he had to take, being an All-Star means more. "For me and everybody that I played with growing up. I hear from friends back home, 'Wow, this is awesome. It's a dream come true.' My brother says I'm living out his dream."

It is in California where Bartlett's career took a turn. Then in the Padres system playing for Lake Elsinore, he caught Leavitt's eye by doing the little things: hustling, stealing bases.

The Twins were working on a deal with the Padres, and then-Twins GM Terry Ryan told Leavitt they wanted middle infield depth. Leavitt told Ryan that Bartlett's stats won't jump off the page, "but the more I saw him, the more I liked him."

"I have to say, I didn't think he'd be an All-Star," Leavitt said. "You certainly don't ever want to put a lid on somebody's ceiling, but I thought he had a chance to be an everyday player, a certainty to be a utility guy, certainty to be a big-leaguer. … He certainly got bigger and stronger, and better, in all three phases …

"He can be an All-Star for years to come. This is not a fluke."

Bartlett thought he could always hit; it has just all come together this year. He put on weight in the offseason and has a more aggressive yet disciplined approach. "This power thing that's coming, hopefully it sticks with me," he said. "When things are clicking, it's pretty fun."

Bartlett said it'll be fun to join three Rays in St. Louis, as well as some Twins such as good friends Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer.

"He's a guy that means a lot to a baseball team," Morneau said. "He does the little things. They said he made the difference last year for them. (Brendan Harris) has done a good job for us at short, but at the same time, you see (Bartlett) hitting .360 and wonder what it would be like. …

"It's just fun to see a guy you played with in the minor leagues, a guy you grew up with together in baseball get (to the All-Star game). And deservedly so."

Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@sptimes.com.

Uphill climb for Tampa Bay Rays' Jason Bartlett hits All-Star heights 07/06/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 7, 2009 7:02am]
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