After an up and down first two months, the Rays' bullpen has regained the edge that made it one of the best in the majors in 2008.
Tampa Bay relievers have pitched to a 1.11 ERA (seven runs, 562/3 innings) since June 8, and in the six-game homestand that concluded with Sunday's 5-2 win against Florida, the pen allowed one run in 181/3 innings.
No component of the team's play was more critical to the Rays taking five of six against the Phillies and Marlins and climbing to seven games over .500 for the first time this year. In the Marlins series, LHP J.P. Howell got two wins and a save.
Overall, Rays relievers have a 3.24 ERA (83 earned runs in 2302/3 innings). That's third best in the majors behind the Red Sox and Mariners.
The improvement is attributed to the starting pitchers working longer, preventing the bullpen from being overworked, and Manager Joe Maddon finding a rhythm in how he uses his new mix of pitchers.
While Maddon continues to eschew traditional designated roles and employ a closer-by-committee approach, pitchers are getting more comfortable with their roles.
"Everybody down there, all seven including long reliever Lance Cormier, has a real good idea what inning slots up for us based on who's coming up," RHP Joe Nelson said. "When the phone rings, most of the time we know it's one of two guys, depending who's fresher."
When LHP pitcher Scott Kazmir was reinstated in the rotation Saturday, Maddon chose to keep LHP David Price in his Sunday slot and bump RHP Jeff Niemann from Saturday to tonight.
The decision was interesting because Niemann, the No. 5 starter and a pitcher who hasn't fared particularly well with extra rest, will pitch against Blue Jays ace Roy Halladay, who is coming off the disabled list. Halladay is 10-1 with a 2.53 ERA.
"Looking at it, we thought we wanted to go all righties against Toronto," Maddon said. "That was all that was about, because we could have done it the other way around, too."
Maddon said it's possible he'll tweak the rotation the next time around to separate rookies Price and Niemann.
Second-round pick Kenny Diekroeger hasn't decided whether he's going to sign or play baseball at Stanford, but he got to wear a Rays uniform for a day anyway.
The Rays gave him a uniform with his name on the back Sunday, worked him out on the infield before the game and introduced him to club executives, team members and the media.
Maddon said the 6-foot-2, 190-pounder, who hit .586 in his senior season at Menlo (Calif.) High, has "great size, a great body to grow into" and "a lot of smooth actions at shortstop."
Diekroeger wouldn't say which way he is leaning, other than "this definitely helped - a lot of all-star treatment and everything."
The Rays concluded interleague play 13-5, their second-best mark against the NL (after 15-3 in 2004). They averaged 6.28 runs and batted .300, best in the majors in both categories, pending the finish of Sunday's games. ... B.J. Upton batted .364 during interleague play. ... Team owner Stu Sternberg attended a second consecutive game and again declined comment on stadium or attendance issues. "I'll talk about anything else," he said.