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10/08/08 7:00 PM EST

Bartlett acquisition proving to be a steal

Shortstop's consistency plays big part in run to ALCS for Rays

ST. PETERSBURG -- If consistency is indeed the straw that stirs the Rays' drink, consider shortstop Jason Bartlett the main ingredient.

"I said all year that I think [Bartlett] is one of the MVPs of our team," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "We have won not because we have outhit everybody. Obviously, it's been the defense, and he's been the glue to the whole thing."

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When executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman and the rest of the Rays' brain trust set out to make a bevy of offseason changes, chief among them was improving on a Major League-high 944 runs allowed and a .980 fielding percentage that ranked 27th.

So in making a multiplayer trade with the Twins during the offseason, Friedman was adamant on including Bartlett in the deal, which was headlined by the acquisition of right-hander Matt Garza. The Rays' insistence on Bartlett -- a move later lauded by Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire -- has proved to be a critical component in 2008's revamped infield.

"To me, he's just steady," Rays right fielder Gabe Gross said. "You know when a ball is hit in his direction, he's going to make the play, and he's going to make an astounding play every once in a while."

While third baseman Evan Longoria makes his living on flashy web gems, it's no coincidence that the Rays went just 7-9 without Bartlett joining Longoria on the left side of the infield. The brief stint on the disabled list (right knee sprain) forced Bartlett to miss 16 games in July, leaving a glaring hole in the American League East champs' stoic defense.

"It's established who we are today, you know?," Garza said. "Our team as a whole, when he wasn't in that lineup for those 15 days, we went in a bad stretch. You can connect the dots a little bit; plays that usually he made weren't made, they were hits. So the stuff he does out there, you notice. It's a big part."

Thanks to hard work this spring, Barteltt forms an intimidating double-play combo with second baseman Akinori Iwamura. The pair of middle infielders -- combined with Longoria and Carlos Pena at the corners -- helped give way to the Rays' newfound defensive prowess.

Tampa Bay held opponents to an astounding 273 fewer runs than last season, finishing with a .985 fielding percentage that ranked eighth in the Majors.

So it was no surprise this season when Bartlett was named the Rays' Most Valuable Player by the Tampa Bay Chapter of the Baseball Writers' Association of America, becoming the first shortstop to win the award in the club's 11-year history.

No surprise, that is, to everyone except Bartlett.

"It gave me the chills when they told me," Bartlett said. "There's a number of guys that definitely could have been out there. But they chose me, and I'm thankful for it."

And in the season's final months, Bartlett's bat has given the Rays another reason to be grateful for that offseason trade.

Predominantly the Rays' No. 9 hitter, Bartlett closed August with a .389 average, the best August average and the second-best monthly average in franchise history. Bartlett raised his season average 28 points during that stretch and collected 18 of his 29 extra-base hits in August and September.

"He's come a long way," Maddon said. "If you watch his hits, [there are] a lot of hard ground balls between third and short. And then he's punching it to the right side."

Bartlett's right-handed bat proved to be a powerful weapon, given the Rays' lefty-heavy lineup. His season average of .379 against left-handers was tops in the league, and he is a career .328 hitter off lefties.

"At the dish, he comes in, he gets his hits, and he's gotten some really big hits for us throughout the year," Gross said. "He's just a steady guy -- someone you can count on, day in, day out to do his job."

Bartlett went 4-for-14 with a double and three runs scored in the AL Division Series against the White Sox. And although he will be counted on to once again spark the bottom of the Rays' order, Bartlett's calm consistency is the real key to the club's AL Championship Series success.

"It's huge," Gross said. "In the playoffs, so much of the basic pace the team plays [off] is the defense. It's so important. So to have a guy like [Bartlett] at shortstop is huge."

Brittany Ghiroli is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.