James Shields pondered the questions for a moment, then boomeranged it right back at the person making the query.
"How good do you think our starting rotation is?" said the man who has been the starting pitcher in each of the Rays' last three openers.
It was a fair enough request, considering I had asked "Big Game James" for some of his time to answer questions, and he has always been unfailing cooperative over the years. Plus, it was an easy enough question to answer: of course I like the Rays' rotation. In fact, the only people who probably don't like the Rays' starting pitchers are the opposing hitters who must face Shields, Matt Garza, Jeff Niemann, Wade Davis, and left-hander David Price. The Rays lead the American League in starters' ERA (2.58), overall ERA, and quality start percentage (.744, 29-of-39).
Garza has been the staff leader with 1.9 SNLVAR, while Niemann (1.8), Price (1.7), Shields (1.2) and Davis (1.0) have also made major contributions. All are either just entering or haven't yet reached the primes of their career as Shields is the elder statesman at 28, Niemann is 27, Garza is 26 and Price and Davis are both 24. Because of their relative youth, the five starters have become a close-knit group, and Rays manager Joe Maddon believes that has helped spark their success.
"You have five guys who are continually rooting for each other, continually supporting each other," Maddon said. "That's important, especially with a young group. They are always encouraging each other and on the day each individual is pitching, he doesn't have four bigger supporters than the other guys in the rotation and on the days when James Shields and David Price aren't pitching, the starting pitcher doesn't have a more vocal supporter in the ballpark."
The old baseball adage says that hitting is contagious. However, not hitting seems to be contagious when teams face the Rays and Shields says it is because the rotation has put a new spin on an old saw.
"This is a situation where good pitching is contagious," Shields said. "Everyone is trying to one-up the next guy. Someone will go out and throw a good game one night and the next guy in the rotation will want to prove he is even better the next night. It's a competition among the five of us and it's been a very healthy competition. We're all pushing each other to be the best pitcher possible and it's been a fun thing to watch and be a part of this season."
The Rays have parlayed the good starting pitching into the best record in the major leagues at 28-11, which also represents the best start in franchise history. Furthermore, the starters have helped reduce the use of the bullpen, which is seen by many analysts to be the Rays' potential fatal flaw, by averaging 6.6 innings an outing. The underexposed relievers have also been very good to this point as the Rays' 2.98 bullpen ERA is second in the AL to only the Tigers, who have a 2.49 mark.
And the Rays have put up those kinds of numbers despite having left-hander J.P. Howell, their saves leader last year, out all season with a shoulder injury that will likely require surgery. Maddon is fundamentally a believer in the Bill James' theory that a manager should deploy his best relievers in the most high-leverage late-inning situations rather than having specific roles. However, he also realizes that pitchers want to have a specific idea of when they are going to pitch, which is why the Rays traded with the Braves for closer Rafael Soriano in the offseason and have a more traditional bullpen setup this season. Soriano has contributed 1.7 WXRL and Dan Wheeler has added 0.7 in a set-up role.
The Rays have needed the strong pitching as their offense has cooled after a strong start. The Rays are second in the league in scoring with an average of 5.31 runs a game but have been held to four runs or less in 11 of their last 17 games. Center fielder B.J. Upton (.255 TAv), first baseman Carlos Pena (.239), and shortstop Jason Bartlett (.235) are all off to slow starts.
"We're going to start hitting again, I have no doubt about that because we have some of the best players in the league in our lineup," Shields said. "It's our job as a pitching staff to pick up the slack until the offense comes back around. It's no problem. We're all in this together and the only thing we're worried about is winning ballgames."
Cubs general manager Jim Hendry, though, says he is not placing the blame for the slow start on Piniella, even if his controversial idea of converting opening-day starter Carlos Zambrano into a set-up reliever turned out to be a failure. Zambrano has been moved to long relief and is likely to return to the rotation should either left-hander Tom Gorzelanny or Carlos Silva falter.
"I'm absolutely, completely confident in Lou Piniella," Hendry said. "I've never given any thought about Lou not being the manager here this year. I have complete faith in the coaching staff, also. I have no intention of making any changes at all."
Piniella is in the final year of his contract, and the Cubs have had winning seasons in each of his three years at the helm, including National League Central titles in 2007 and 2008. The 66-year-old Piniella says he continues to believe in his team.
"I've said all along that we're going to get better," he said. "I feel that way and we've got the team here to do it. Jim and I have worked closely together, and you go through some tough times, and you go through some good times in this business."
Meanwhile, Guillen's status seems more than at any time during his seven seasons on the job. General manager Ken Williams has not hidden his displeasure at the way the White Sox are playing and those around the team believe some kind of change is in the offing, whether it is Guillen or some members of his coaching staff.
"I don't care about me," Guillen said. "With the coaches, one thing about it, we do everything we can to make these guys better. I know it. I fired three coaches myself because I didn't think they were on the same page. If (Williams) wants to blow this ballclub away, that's his call. I still believe in this club and it shows some signs how good we can be and shows some signs how bad we can be. The way we play, we should be in last place, 30 games out. We compete. We're just not winning games. Is it about me? I said the first day I got this job, 'I see even the best coaches getting fired, the best managers getting fired.' I think I do what I can do every day to make this ballclub work. I'm not a princess or an icon. If the team don't work the way it (should) be working, I'll be the first one to be blamed. That's the way this thing works in baseball or any sport. You don't produce, it's easy to fire one guy or two or three guys than 25."
Speculation whirled Monday afternoon when Mets chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon and GM Omar Minaya showed up at Turner Field with their team on a five-game losing streak heading into a two-game series with the Braves. Surely, Wilpon and Minaya had made an unscheduled trip south to fire manager Jerry Manuel.
Wilpon, Minaya, assistant GM John Ricco and Manuel met for nearly two hours behind closed doors in a conference room in the visiting clubhouse. Yet Manuel emerged from the confab still holding his job, and sounds confident that he will continue as manager for the foreseeable future.
"I have not been concerned about my status," Manuel said. "Maybe I should but I have not been."
Manuel and Wilpon both said his job security was never discussed during the meeting. The Mets are 19-21 and last in the NL East, going 5-12 since an eight-game winning streak to end April.
"I felt like it was time to come down and meet with the staff and get a state of where they think we're at and what can be done to get this team moving forward again," Wilpon said. "We've played a good week and a half of baseball and now have not played well, and it's time to start playing well again."
MLB Rumors and Rumblings: The Tigers' Carlos Guillen will play second base when he begins his rehabilitation assignment with Triple-A Toledo this weekend. He has not played the position since 1999 with the Mariners. … The Mets reportedly don't have interest in signing free agent Pedro Martinez to help solve their starting pitching problems, but when knuckleballer R.A. Dickey is recalled from Triple-A Buffalo to start Wednesday night against the Nationals, rookie reliever Jenrry Mejia will be optioned to the same club in order to be stretched out as a starter. … The Rangers have interest in trading for White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski, who gains 10-and-5 rights on June 14, which will allow him to veto an deal as a player with 10 years of major-league service time, including five with his current club. If the White Sox decide to begin tearing their team apart, look for right-hander Jake Peavy to be made available, and for the Yankees to make a strong push for first baseman Paul Konerko, who they would use as a designated hitter. … Circle June 4 on your calendar, because it is beginning to look like Nationals pitching prospect Steven Strasburg will make his much-anticipated debut that night against the Reds at Nationals Park. … Garrett Atkins' days with the Orioles appear numbered, as outfielder Nolan Reimond is now seeing action at first base with Triple-A Norfolk. … While Andres Torres will replace the injured Mark DeRosa in left field for the Giants for now, first baseman Aubrey Huff has volunteered to move to left to open a spot for top prospect Buster Posey to be called up from Triple-A Fresno to play first … The Pirates are likely to call up right-hander Brad Lincoln from Triple-A Indianapolis in two weeks when he will have missed out on enough major-league service time this season to delay his first year of arbitration eligibility until after the 2013 season.