ST. PETERSBURG -- Twins manager Ron Gardenhire has never denied that his team had to give up quality players when they completed a six-player trade with the Rays last November to bring outfielder Delmon Young to Minnesota. So it comes as no surprise to Gardenhire that Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett have played significant roles in the Rays' surprising run this season. "They are good players -- we knew that when they were here," Gardenhire said. "That's how you get a good player back because you have to give up good players -- give up a good pitcher and my shortstop -- to try to get some offensive outfield help in Delmon."
As the Twins and Rays met at Tropicana Field for the start of a four-game series on Thursday night, it's the Rays who have the chance to clinch a playoff berth. Their magic number entering the day was three, which would ensure them at least the Wild Card. Garza was considered to be the centerpiece of the deal for Tampa Bay back in November, and he's helped the Rays get to this position. The right-hander has notched his own spot in a very talented pitching staff this season, going 11-9 with a 3.66 ERA in 29 starts. The Twins' 2005 first-round pick admits that at the time of the trade, he was disappointed. But it's been a move that Garza now agrees has benefited him greatly, in part due to a change of scenery. "In Minnesota when I got called up, there was a lot of hype," Garza said. "As a 22-year-old kid, trying to live up to all that hype wasn't good for me. I got big-headed and didn't have the results I wanted, so I tried to do more. "Here, I'm not the big guy. I'm not the guy who came up in a year. We've got [David] Price for that. Scott Kazmir and James Shields are the [Nos.] 1 and 2 guys. I'm just the guy in the back to middle of the rotation. There is no pressure on me." Along with the decreased pressure, Garza also said that Rays manager Joe Maddon has been a huge help to him in terms of the mental side of the game. One of the concerns during Garza's time with the Twins was his inability to control his emotions. But after an altercation with catcher Dioner Navarro in early June, Garza said he's made significant strides in improving that area. One such sign of Garza's growth came when he was asked if there was a little extra motivation this season to show the Twins what they lost in making that trade. "No, I don't really have to show them anything," Garza said. "They gave me the opportunity to get up here, the opportunity to play pro ball. So you move on." Garza has made an impact on Tampa Bay's pitching staff, but Bartlett has perhaps had an even bigger effect on another aspect of the club -- defense. Bartlett's offensive numbers are similar to years he had with the Twins, batting .278 with one home run and 31 RBIs. But the shortstop is considered to have made his contribution by strengthening the club up the middle. "I said all year that I think [Bartlett] is one of the MVPs of our team," 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." Although he's quite happy with his new ballclub, Bartlett said that he still keeps close tabs on what the Twins are doing. He's even earned some chiding from his Rays teammates about needing to "let go." Still, Bartlett said he's been watching the Twins push to try to stay in the AL Central hunt, sitting 2 1/2 games back of the White Sox heading into this series. And while many in baseball are surprised by Minnesota's season, Bartlett is not. "It's amazing because they do it every year," Bartlett said. "No one gives them a chance, and they keep doing it. It's the Minor League players that come up. That just shows how good the scouting is over there and the player development." But while the Twins are fighting for their playoff lives, the Rays are very close to securing theirs. So would it be nice to clinch against his former team? "It doesn't matter who we are facing -- we just want to say we made the playoffs," Bartlett said.
Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.