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Rays

Peralta at his best against opposition's best

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Published:   |   Updated: June 9, 2013 at 11:35 AM
ST. PETERSBURG -

It was a scoreless game in the eighth inning the other day in Detroit and the Tigers had the go-ahead run at second base with two outs when Rays manager Joe Maddon had Alex Cobb walk Miguel Cabrera intentionally.

Pick your poison, right? Pitch to Cabrera with the game on the line or pitch to Prince Fielder, the next hitter.

Maddon opted for Fielder. Then he opted for Joel Peralta.

Why not? No member of the Rays bullpen faces the heart of the opposing team's lineup more often than Peralta.

“I'm kind of used to it,” Peralta said. “It's been like that since I got here. It don't really matter any more.”

It mattered Wednesday, when Peralta struck out Fielder, the Tigers' cleanup hitter, to send the game to the ninth, where the Rays won it with a three-run inning. Peralta was credited with the win.

The following day Maddon offered Peralta as the team's MVP through the first 11 weeks of the season.

“To this point he might be our most valuable player when you look at the whole scope of things,” Maddon said. “Of course Longo and Loney and all those guys, but the fact that we struggled a bit in the bullpen and kind of gave it some definition while all the bad things have been going on. He's been a huge contributor.”

Evan Longoria is back to playing like a Gold Glove-winning All-Star now that he's healthy. James Loney was the find of the offseason, providing the Rays with Gold Glove-caliber defense at first base and exceeding everyone's expectations with his offense.

Peralta? He woke up Saturday tied for the American League-lead in appearances with 32 — 24 of which have been scoreless.

He's holding hitters to a .170 average. He's holding left-handers to a .165 average.

What makes Peralta so valuable as the eighth-inning set-up man is his ability to retire lefties. Because of that, Maddon calls him the best left-handed reliever in the game.

The reason for the success against lefties?

“That's for the other teams to figure out,” Maddon said.

One puzzle opposing hitters don't have to solve — especially those hitting in the heart of an order — is if it's the eighth inning (and sometimes even the seventh) you're going to face Peralta.

Since he joined the Rays in 2011, Peralta has faced the Nos. 3, 4 and 5 hitters more than any other hitters in the lineup and has held them to a .182 average. During that time, No. 3 hitters are batting .075 against Peralta. That's the lowest average in the majors during that time frame.

“If you watch it, when the game is on the line, 100 percent it's going to come to one, two, three, four, five hitters,” closer Fernando Rodney said. “It's not an easy job, man, it's hard, hard, hard.”

Maddon said a closer is only as good as his set-up man, and Peralta's success means Rodney often faces the bottom half of the order. In fact, this season Rodney has faced the seventh, eighth and ninth hitters more than any others in the lineup.

“Last year he had a pretty good year. No one talked about him. I don't know why,” Rodney said.

Could be because everyone was busy talking about Rodney's historic season.

Anyway, Peralta is the calming force in the bullpen among his fellow relievers. He's the veteran who is the same upbeat self every day whether he struck out Fielder on four pitches for the biggest out of the game or he allowed the lead to disappear with a rough outing.

“If you look at him he's just a regular right-handed pitcher, but when you watch him pitch on a regular basis, you're like, 'This guy is unbelievable,'” Cesar Ramos said. “Nothing's going to wow you, but then you're like, 'Wow, he got out of it.' It's the end effect. It's not about throwing 100, it's about having heart and the guts to go out there and know I'm better than you today.”

And Peralta does that against some of the game's better hitters.

“Right now it seems like I'm better when I face the top part of the order, anyway. It gets the best out of me,” Peralta said. “They don't make it easy for me. Sometimes you want it a little bit easy. At least one or two out of 10.”


rmooney@tampatrib.com

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Twitter: @RMooneyTBO

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