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Rays bullpen armed for more success

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Published:   |   Updated: April 1, 2013 at 06:37 AM
ST. PETERSBURG -

Fernando Rodney said he is expecting a shipment of imaginary arrows to arrive before Tuesday's season opener against the Baltimore Orioles.

How many? Enough, Rodney said, for 162 saves.

Now, Rodney might have some left over at the end of the year even if he tops the team-record 48 saves he recorded in 2012. But, Rodney's point is this: He expects the Rays bullpen to be as good as it was last season.

So does set-up man Joel Peralta, whose 37 holds in 2012 where the most among AL relievers since 1952, according to Stats Inc.

“I always talk about experience because to me that's what helped me the last couple of years, and I think we have more experience this year, so it could be better,” Peralta said.

The Rays bullpen led the American League with a 2.88 ERA in 2012 and held opposing hitters to a league-low .208 batting average. The ERA was the lowest since the 2005 Indians (2.80), and the opposing batting average was the lowest since the 2003 Dodgers (.207).

The Rays were 73-8 last season when leading after the sixth inning, 75-3 when leading after the seventh and 77-2 when they took a lead into the ninth.

“We had the lead in the fourth or fifth inning and everyone started getting locked in, 'OK, my time to pitch is coming.' That was great,” Peralta said. “I think it's going to be as good as last year. I think this bullpen is going to be great this year.”

Gone are J.P. Howell, Wade Davis and Burke Badenhop. They've been replaced by Jamey Wright, Cesar Ramos and, for now, Jeff Niemann.

The back end of the bullpen remains intact — Rodney, Peralta, Jake McGee and Kyle Farnsworth.

“(Last year is) obviously a really high bar,” executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said. “I think every year leading into Opening Day I'm incredibly nervous about our bullpen. I think because of the cyclicality of it, you almost have to be.

“I think we have a lot of really talented pitchers that really complement one another and we've got guys that can match up really well. We've got guys that can provide length. So I think it's a really strong unit, but I'm always nervous about the way it's going to perform.”

Wright, a 17-year-veteran, will be relied upon to come in and get a ground ball, something he should have more success with once he can fully command his sinker.

“I'm not worried about it at all. It's spring training,” Wright said. “Once Opening Day hits, it will be there. It's never not been there.”

Niemann will be the long man. Ramos is a lefty who can pitch multiple innings because of his success against right-handers — a .130 average in 2012.

The emergence last season of McGee gives manager Joe Maddon the flexibility to use Farnsworth (25 saves in 2011) earlier in games. McGee allowed just 33 hits and struck out 73 in his 55 1/3 innings. A left-hander, he held right-handed hitters to a .098 average. His 1.95 ERA was third among American League relievers and seventh in the major leagues. Of his 69 appearances, 60 were scoreless.

“The guy was sick last year,” Peralta said. “This year he can be better.”

No one was sicker than Rodney, who added a 0.60 ERA, the lowest ever for a pitcher with at least 50 innings pitched, to his 48 saves, and punctuated each by firing an imaginary arrow toward the sky.

“I just hope that he can get close to last year,” Peralta said. “I'm not even asking for the same thing. That's going to be hard to repeat. If he can have a close year to last year he's going to be good. He's going to be really good.”

One element in the success of last year's bullpen was the success of the starting rotation. Peralta and company had to cover only 466 innings in 2012, which averages to fewer than nine outs a game.

With James Shields and the 2272/3 innings he pitched last season no longer in the rotation, it will be imperative for Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore, Alex Cobb and Roberto Hernandez to follow David Price's lead and pitch as deep into games as possible.

Niemann is in the bullpen to pitch two, maybe three innings on a night when a starter has a quick exit. Ramos can do the same. But too many long nights for Niemann and Ramos will tax the rest of the relievers.

“When bullpens are asked to cover more (than nine outs) on a consistent basis, it's hard to have a really good bullpen,” Maddon said. “They just get worn out. Really it's up to the starters.”

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