BALTIMORE -- Rays manager Joe Maddon says he frets about his bullpen more than anything else, but over the past week the group hasn't given him much to worry about.
In Thursday's 6-2 loss to the Orioles, Chris Davis' seventh-inning solo homer against Burke Badenhop snapped a streak of 21 consecutive scoreless innings for the Rays 'pen. The group racked up 33 strikeouts during the stretch, which dated back to July 18.
"You're not going to go to the final game of the season and win it without strong starting pitching and a great bullpen," Maddon said. "We have a nice balance back and forth, they seem to be relatively well and healthy. I think going into the last two months of the season for me, as a manager, I know that it's important to keep these guys frisky and fresh. If there's anything I agonize over on a daily basis, it's the bullpen. I don't agonize over anything else. I promise you that."
Maddon said his task of keeping the 'pen in top shape has become significantly easier since Kyle Farnsworth returned to action on June 30 after missing the start of the year with an elbow injury.
By using Farnsworth in eight games, Maddon has been able to give his other relievers rest when they need it.
"It's always about taking care of the bullpen," Maddon said. "And if you take care of the bullpen, you can play the last game of the year and win it."
Fernando Rodney has earned most of the headlines for converting 28 of 29 saves and posting a 0.81 ERA, but Maddon has been pleased by the contributions of many others.
Wade Davis and Jake McGee have both posted sub-three ERAs, while J.P. Howell hasn't surrendered a run in 17 innings since June 14.
Even Joel Peralta, whose 4.15 ERA is one of the 'pen's highest, has impressed Maddon. Removing Peralta's worst two outings, his ERA is just 2.61.
"People are going to be absolutely confused by [Peralta's ERA]," Maddon said. "That's just a couple bad outings. This guy has been unbelievably lockdown for us."
Shields not worrying about trade rumors
BALTIMORE -- James Shields isn't thinking about how Thursday's start may have been his last in a Rays uniform.
Major League Baseball's non-waiver Trade Deadline is Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET, and Shields' next outing with the Rays is scheduled for about six hours later, in Oakland.
But the right-hander isn't focused on the rumors that have been fluttering around the past few weeks, rumors that have him linked to the Angels, Rangers, Tigers and Dodgers, among many other possible suitors.
"I worry about that later, after the fact that it happens," Shields said. "As of right now, I'm a Ray, and I'm going to try to win some games for us this year."
But that doesn't mean Shields isn't hearing all of the talk.
"It's out there," he said. "This happens every year. I heard a bunch of stuff last year too, as well. Heard a bunch of stuff this offseason. It's just kind of one of those things where, I've been in the game long enough to realize that this is a business, and this is what goes on, and you just never know what's going to happen. So you've just kind of got to let it go and not really worry about it."
Manager Joe Maddon isn't all that concerned with all of the trade talk, either. Far from revealing the Rays' intentions as the Deadline approaches, Maddon opted to give the stock answer when asked on Wednesday about all of the possibilities.
"You're always looking to get better," Maddon said. "But even if we don't do anything, I believe that the group out here right now can get to the playoffs again. I'm still going to stand by my stance from the beginning -- we're going to go to the World Series this year. I'm not backing down from that."
Maddon sees the starting pitching as his team's biggest strength, and doesn't envision a breakup of the rotation with the Rays very much in contention.
Rather, he sees the latest flow of rumors as a product of the system and something he's become very used to. Center fielder B.J. Upton, an impending free agent, has been the subject of similar rumors for the past two seasons.
"All of these rumors are going to happen, every year it's somebody else with us," Maddon said. "B.J. has been the rumor or trade du jour on an annual basis, and now this year it's James. I really don't anticipate anything happening."
"To not have James in the mix would be very difficult to get back to the promised land. So, as normal, we hear this every year, but I really don't anticipate a lot to happen, or anything to happen."
Bigger than any acquisition the Rays could make in the trade market would be the healthy return of Evan Longoria, who was hitting .329/.433/.561 with four home runs and 19 RBIs through 23 games before suffering a partial tear of his left hamstring.
"The most helpful part would be that he's well, that he can continue to play," Maddon said. "That'd be the most helpful, as opposed to thinking that you have to go get somebody else."
Maddon pleased with defensive improvement
BALTIMORE -- During the Rays' first trip to Baltimore from May 11-13, they committed seven errors, losing two out of three in the series.
But after Thursday's finale of their second series at Camden Yards, the Rays are errorless in eight of their last nine games, including a perfect defensive series in which they notched a pair of wins against the O's.
Tampa Bay is still tied for second in baseball with 76 errors, but manager Joe Maddon has seen the results of an increased emphasis on defense since the All-Star break.
"We've done better," Maddon said. "During the 10-game homestead, we did a lot of extra work defensively. Just basic fundamental stuff to try to cut down on the routine mistakes that we had been making, and to this point it has worked out pretty well."
Also likely to help is the addition of third baseman Ryan Roberts, acquired from the D-backs on Tuesday. Roberts is a career .957 fielder at the hot corner.
The Rays are second in the Majors with 22 errors at third base. The Orioles lead with 23.
Greg Luca is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.