Rays recognize Navarro's maturity
Hot-hitting catcher showing ability to handle pitching staff
ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rays' starting rotation has been an oft-discussed topic and is undoubtedly a major reason the club is enjoying their best start in franchise history.
The young hurlers that compose the starting five have not given up a run in their last five appearances, and appear to have both the confidence and the poise that has superseded them in seasons past.
A major boost to this composure on the mound has been the emergence of catcher Dioner Navarro. Although the backstop entered Tuesday's game batting a team-high .362, what Navarro has been able to do behind the plate has been much harder to quantify.
"He's been fantastic," Rays closer Troy Percival said.
Percival admits he initially "had his doubts," but has been impressed by Navarro's ability to command the infield and make the pitchers feel comfortable.
"I can't say I knew because I really didn't see it coming," Percival said. "I only got to throw to him once in Spring Training, and I went, 'Oh my, this is going to be a work in progress.' But just two, three outings into it, we are really thinking along the same lines when we are out there."
Just over sixty feet away, Navarro has been able to serve as "general" for the pitchers on the mound, and his diligent persistence has not gone unnoticed.
"He came into Spring Training in a lot better shape this year, and I think he's got a lot better focus," James Shields said.
Navarro rejoined the team April 22 after a stint on the 15-day disabled list with lacerations on his throwing hand. Since his return, the catcher's bat has been red-hot, going 22-for-60, including a game-winning grand slam in Toronto on Thursday.
Batting in the No. 8 hole, the backstop's bat has been a pleasant surprise for the Rays, but his work behind the plate has been even more important, as Navarro has helped guide the younger arms.
"He's done a great job this year," Andy Sonnanstine said. "He instills a lot of confidence in me when I pitch, and he seems to be right on point with his pitch selection. A lot of times I just go out there, trust him and play the game -- just kind of let it play out."
That game plan has worked in Sonnanstine's early outings, as the right-hander is 5-1, including a period of four straight starts in which he collected a win.
As a whole, the Rays' starters enter Tuesday's game with a 1.30 ERA over the last six games, while the bullpen has been one of the best in the Majors, sporting a 3.19 ERA in 35 games.
For Navarro, his success has been a product of belief and perseverance, as the catcher says he simply wanted to make up for a dismal start to last season. Prior to last year's All-Star break, Navarro hit .179 and never looked quite comfortable behind the plate.
"The people around me have helped me tremendously," he said. "They [coaches and teammates] always knew that I was capable of doing this, but having them [work with me] has helped my game so much."
"He does a lot of video time and talking with the coaches," Percival added. "And just understanding what he's trying to accomplish behind the plate, that's the thing that's going to go unseen and unheard is what he's doing behind the plate."
Whether it has been discussions on handling a certain batter or just making a trip to the mound when things get heated, Navarro has been a rock in alleviating pressure-filled scenarios.
"I think it's something he has learned how to do," Percival said. "And I saw [Giants catcher] Bengie Molina do the same thing. It's like all of sudden, 'This is my pitching staff and I got to take care of it.' He's doing that, so I just go out on the mound and I trust what he's going to call."
Brittany Ghiroli is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.