No-name pen makes strides

By EDUARDO A. ENCINA, Times Staff Writer
Published September 2, 2007

NEW YORK - When talking about the Rays bullpen, the organization's line has always been to remain patient.

Finally, patience seems to have paid off.

Over the past six weeks, the Rays have made dramatic strides to improve their bullpen. The acquisitions of Dan Wheeler and Grant Balfour, plus Scott Dohmann's return to the majors, didn't involve the big names some fans might have wanted, but the pen is better because of them.

In the past year, several attempts to improve the bullpen failed. Brian Stokes' conversion to closer fell short, and Seth McClung's move to the bullpen never lived up to expectations. And at times, relievers Ruddy Lugo and Shawn Camp appeared to be throwing from a mound made of pins and needles.

Now, there's a much calmer feel in the bullpen. It appears the Rays have found the type of pitchers they need to assemble a quality pen.

"I think you really have to pay attention to the fact that 27-, 28-, 29-year-old relief pitchers all of a sudden get their opportunities," manager Joe Maddon said.

"These guys have learned their craft. They've waited for their opportunity. The seventh, eighth and ninth innings are a very hectic part of the game and you have to have a special makeup and personality to handle that. ... It might take a seasoned veteran in a sense of lesser physical ability but more of a feel for the game to be able to accomplish that role."

Combine the newcomers with nonroster invitee Gary Gloverand the Rays have a bullpen full of little-known players who might be just reaching their best years. They have been through crucial game situations and know the importance of throwing strikes and having short memories.

"I think it takes being knocked down, and knocked down hard, and knowing what it takes to get back up again," said the 29-year-old Dohmann, who has allowed just one earned run in his past 15 appearances. "That's what this game is based on, failure. I think the experience factor is a big key, being comfortable in those situations when they arise."

EYES ARE WATCHING: While watching his team play in New York, Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg praised the team's minor-league organization. Both Triple-A Durham and Double-A Montgomery are playoff bound, and the development of RHP Jeff Niemann, RHP Mitch Talbot, RHP Chris Mason, RHP Wade Davis and LHP Jacob McGee has been "mind-boggling," Sternberg said.

"Those are two things I don't take for granted and the organization doesn't take for granted," Sternberg said.

RAYS RUMBLINGS: Brewers assistant GM Gord Ash, on figuring McClung had worn out his welcome with the Rays: "Looking from the outside in, we couldn't figure out with all the pitching woes the club was having why he never got called up." ... ESPN.com's Bill Simmons ripped the Rays, the Trop and St. Petersburg pretty harshly in his recent Page 2 column, including calling the Trop "a cross between a nuclear reactor and an oversized silver boob" and saying that instead of free parking they should provide "free catheters, adult diapers and tapioca" and that instead of the ecological garden they "should have used the money for electroshock therapy on Elijah Dukes." ... Charity drives by the Rays wives and girlfriends went very well, with donations worth thousands to needy students and babies, and more than 60 care packages shipped overseas to MacDill-based soldiers.

MISCELLANY: SS Josh Wilson, who is not known for his power, drew raves for hitting his first major-league homer Thursday to centerfield. But he has drawn much more praise for his solid glove. Maddon also said he can be a .280 hitter given everyday work. ... LHP Scott Kazmir won four games in August, tying his own club record for a month.