1. Rays

Reliever Jake McGee shines in Tampa Bay Rays' bullpen

Right-handed hitters battered Jake McGee last season, but he has limited them to a .102 average this year.
Right-handed hitters battered Jake McGee last season, but he has limited them to a .102 average this year.
Published Sep. 7, 2012

ST. PETERSBURG — When it comes to the Rays bullpen, closer Fernando Rodney has deservedly garnered much of the hype and an All-Star selection.

Veteran Joel Peralta is the workhorse setup man with a calming presence, right-hander Kyle Farnsworth has the pedigree, and J.P. Howell is in the midst of a spectacular bounce-back season.

Meanwhile, manager Joe Maddon said nobody is talking about lefty Jake McGee, who is emerging as a force in his first full big-league season and is a reason why this year's Rays bullpen may be their deepest group yet.

McGee, 26, is more comfortable and confident on the mound, consistently locating his mid-to-high 90s fastball enough to make him a weapon against both righties and lefties. His 2.01 ERA is second to Rodney among Rays relievers.

"It's fun to watch him, to see his demeanor on the mound," said former Rays closer Roberto Hernandez, who occasionally advises the bullpen. "With McGee, a couple years ago, he was hoping to belong. Now, when you see him pitch, he brings an aura like, 'I do belong here, so deal with it.' He's not hoping anymore."

McGee has not been charged with a run in 16 consecutive appearances, striking out 19 and allowing four hits over that 13 1/3-inning span. He was at it again Wednesday night, striking out two of the three Yankees he faced.

What has made McGee more valuable this year is how he has been "devastating" on right-handed hitters, Maddon said. Righties hit .400 off McGee last season, when he made the opening day roster but was sent down in late April due to struggles. But McGee bounced back, racking up four September wins, including in Game 162 against the Yankees, and he has been actually better against righties (.102) than lefties (.270) this year.

"I'm just throwing more strikes and attacking," McGee said. "This year, against righties, I've been able to locate my fastball away to them, and last year I wasn't able to do that and it leaked over the plate. When I'm throwing fastball away to righties now, it's running away from them, as opposed to last year it cut toward the middle of the plate."

It helps that McGee has been able to mix in his slider, which has been developing. His fastball velocity has been consistently up in the mid 90s, while, as Maddon says, his heartbeat is "very slow."

"He's very much in command of the moment, that's part of his success, too," Maddon said. "When you're out on the mound and a guy comes in, when you give him the ball, what does he look like? What do his eyes look like? Is he breathing well? What's he all about? (McGee) is outstanding, because he comes in, you bring him in during the course of an inning, and he's always good."

McGee has inherited 42 baserunners this season, tied for fifth most in the American League. And thanks to his strong strikeout-to-walk ratio (56:10), McGee can get out of jams.

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"You get on a good roll on the team and pitching in big games and getting opportunities to get holds and pitching with runners on," McGee said. "The more I do that, the more comfortable I get."

Pitching coach Jim Hickey said as good as the team's 2010 bullpen was, with Rafael Soriano and Joaquin Benoit having dominant seasons, this group might be the deepest. He points to McGee, as well as Wade Davis, who has been impressive in unselfishly moving from the rotation to the bullpen (2.29 ERA). Hickey said Davis and sinkerballer Burke Badenhop could be "premier" relievers in other team's bullpens, but because of the Rays strong starting pitching and bullpen depth, they don't get as many appearances.

But, like McGee, they can get spotted in the right situations, and shine.

Said Hickey of McGee: "It's absolutely the most rewarding part of it is seeing guys come from just pups that you hope can help to guys that you count on to be productive and be winners night in and night out."