Bartlett's adjustment to Rays seamless
Shortstop takes steps to build rapport with DP partner Iwamura
ST. PETERSBURG -- When the Minnesota Twins visited St. Petersburg on Tuesday, it didn't take long for manager Ron Gardenhire to inquire about two of his former players: Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett.
"How's Bartlett doing?" he asked the media before the game, which was eventually rained out.
Gardenhire was relieved to hear about his former shortstop's progress, singling out Bartlett as a great guy and saying he was genuinely happy for Bartlett's preseason success.
Though brief, Gardenhire's summation spoke volumes for a shortstop who has remained significantly under the radar.
While Garza was the face of the trade that sent Delmon Young, Brendan Harris and Jason Pridie to Minnesota, Bartlett's impact inside the clubhouse shouldn't be overlooked.
With Akinori Iwamura switching from third base to second, Bartlett could be the missing piece for a middle infield whose play last year was downright puzzling at times.
At 28, Bartlett is smart, defensive-orientated and bilingual.
Well, not yet.
"A little," Bartlett laughed. He is trying to learn as much Japanese as possible, writing down words or phrases on scraps of paper to help gain common ground with Iwamura.
"He knows certain words," Bartlett said of Iwamura's English. "I can talk to him regular; I just have to explain myself a lot."
Rays manager Joe Maddon said last week that he wants the pair to ultimately become one person, throwing out phrases like "Iwa-lett" or "Bart-amura."
A new nickname would certainly be no problem for Bartlett, who has adjusted to a new clubhouse, a new manager and a new time zone practically overnight.
"It's been easy, perfect," said Bartlett, who pointed out that the Rays' Spring Training record, 7-1 following Saturday's 4-1 win over the Yankees, "obviously makes it better" to adjust to a new place.
Bartlett has also played a key role in helping Garza adjust. The 24-year-old righty will likely be the No. 3 pitcher in the Rays' starting rotation, and he said that having a familiar face several yards behind him has been a tremendous help.
"I can trust him," Garza said. "He knows how to calm me down, and I'm not saying I can't trust any of these guys, but just based on experience, I know I can trust him."
But now that Bartlett has settled in and grown accustomed to a new shade of blue and bits of Japanese, he is still far from content.
The infielder has spent Spring Training focusing on his offense, experimenting with his hands and the way he grips the bat.
So far, so good. Through the Rays' first eight games, Bartlett had a .333 average and said that, defensively, he can see the ball coming off the bat better.
In Friday's win, Bartlett went 2-for-3 with an RBI, and in Thursday's five-inning contest, he went 1-for-2 with a triple and run scored.
Scoring runs is the crux of what the Rays want to see from the speedy Bartlett, who led the Twins last season with 23 stolen bases in 26 attempts.
"If you watch him very close, you can see he does all the little things he needs to," Maddon said. "He makes good turns, good cuts and he's a good runner. He's a smart runner."
Maddon hopes that putting Bartlett in the nine-hole in the batting order will generate runs for the Rays, who finished last season in the bottom half of the American League in runs scored.
Having Bartlett, who has a career .341 on-base percentage after four Major League seasons, running the bases should help sluggers like Carlos Pena and B.J. Upton drive in runs.
"To be a successful American League team, I think you have to be strong one through nine," Maddon said. "I like the way [Bartlett] is handling the bat right now. He's a guy who is situationally good."
Bartlett agrees, saying that batting in front of Iwamura suits him just fine.
"I told Aki [on Friday], if I'm batting nine and he's leadoff, you've got first and second -- that's going to help me a lot [in terms of stealing third]," Bartlett said.
And with Iwamura's .359 on-base percentage, the two hope to be just as dynamic on the basepaths as they are turning double plays.
Perhaps Bartlett should become familiar with a new Japanese word: Uketsugu, to succeed.
Brittany Ghiroli is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.