BALTIMORE - There's no question the Devil Rays went a significant stretch of this season living in fear of their bullpen, but those days are gone now.
Not to say everything is perfect in the relief corps, but at least there's a sense of trust inside the clubhouse that was absent early on.
'Our bullpen's been outstanding,' RHP James Shields said. 'This whole second half I think we've been great. It feels good as a starter to go out there and feel comfortable with coming out of the game.'
It goes without saying that that hasn't been the case all season, but there was a definite turning point. July 30 was the day the Rays first had the services of RHP Dan Wheeler, who along with RHPs Grant Balfour and Scott Dohmann has been a stabilizing force for the relief corps.
Heading into play that day, the Rays' bullpen had an astonishing 6.67 ERA and had allowed 11.7 hits and 5.0 walks per nine innings while striking out 6.8 per nine.
From July 30 through Thursday night, the relievers have a 4.45 ERA while surrendering 9.2 hits and 3.2 walks per nine innings while increasing their strikeout rate to 8.3.
Wheeler and Balfour in particular have had a lot to do with the change, both in pitching well themselves and replacing relievers who weren't performing. And there's something to be said for the experience gained by pitching under postseason pressure, which both have done.
'Those guys have had success on winning teams, and I think that brings a whole different attitude down there,' RHP Gary Glover said. 'Some of the guys before had been here for the most part or in losing situations or they were just young and this was the only place they knew. I think that makes a big difference, when other guys come in and are like, 'We're not going to settle for this.' I think that does definitely help.'
The bullpen's newfound ability to do its job has been among the factors in a stretch that has kept the Rays hovering right around .500 since the end of July.
'A big part of that is the bullpen,' said Manager Joe Maddon, 'because now we know if we catch a lead we have a pretty good chance of keeping it at the end of the game, whereas in the first half that was very nebulous - to say the least.'
REINFORCEMENTS: Because both Durham and Montgomery are closing in on playoff spots, the Rays won't have an influx of September call-ups just yet.
'We want to give our affiliates a chance to go ahead and win,' Maddon said.
Maddon said the Rays may bring up one or two players this weekend but discussions were still ongoing about the specifics. Veteran RHP Jay Witasick is expected to be one of them, as he is more than ready to return from his rehab assignment with the Bulls.
Many teams bring up a third catcher in September and the Rays are no different, but they don't have a healthy receiver on the 40-man roster in the minors after Shawn Riggans underwent season-ending elbow surgery. Raul Casanova is a possibility to return, but the Rays would have to open up a 40-man spot for him.
'I would like to have a third catcher,' said Maddon, 'but we don't know how we're going to work that out as of yet.'
As for the player who might be the most anticipated September call-up, Rocco Baldelli, there was nothing new on his status Thursday.
FARM FACTS: Rays prospects took the two top on-field honors in the annual Southern League awards announced Thursday.
3B Evan Longoria was named the league MVP in a vote of league managers, broadcasters and media even though he was promoted to Triple-A on Aug. 1. Longoria hit .307 with 21 doubles, 21 homers and 76 RBIs in 105 games with the Biscuits.
RHP Chris Mason was named the league's outstanding pitcher. Mason is currently 15-4 with a 2.53 ERA in 27 starts.
RHP Dale Thayer, OF Fernando Perez and C John Jaso also were named to the year-end league All-Star team.