Sure gloves: Rays defense shining early in spring

Defense could again be the hallmark -- and the best friend of pitchers -- for the Rays in 2014.

Rays third baseman Evan Longoria throws the ball to first during a game earlier this week. Tampa Bay has made just two errors in seven spring training games.

Kim Klement / USA TODAY Sports

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- It's only March 7, which means little can be read from early spring results, but Alex Cobb finds defensive returns pleasing.

Progress now, payoff later.

''Defense isn't going anywhere,'' the Tampa Bay Rays right-hander said, after he threw three scoreless innings and allowed two hits in his team's 6-3 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays on Friday at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium. ''Balls are going to be balls on the ground and fly balls, and smart defensive plays are going to be smart defensive plays. That's not going to change as the course of the season is going on.''

One trend has emerged from the Rays' first seven spring games: Think defense, defense, defense -- which could translate to wins, wins, wins.

Opponents' power? Yeah, not much happening so far.

''You don't want to read too much into spring training,'' Rays catcher Ryan Hanigan said. ''But it's definitely going to help build confidence.''

Here's a trend worth watching throughout spring: Before Friday, the Rays led all major league teams with a 2.29 ERA. That included 14 earned runs allowed in 55 innings pitched, both numbers credit to the arms Tampa Bay has trotted to the mound and the gloves behind them.

Since a 4-2 loss to the Baltimore Orioles to open the exhibition season last Friday, the Rays have allowed two or fewer runs three times, including blanking the big, bad Boston Red Sox 8-0 on Tuesday in Fort Myers.

For most of Friday, this pattern played out the same way: Cobb was comfortable; Brandon Gomes allowed no hits in one inning; Brad Boxberger found ''trouble'' by allowing one run on two hits in one inning; C.J. Riefenhauser, Nathan Karns and Steve Geltz surrendered no runs; and Matt Andriese lived the Rays' roughest patch by yielding two runs and two hits in 1 1/3 innings.

''To be at that point that we're at right now already is a huge sign of, hopefully, a lot of success in that department,'' Cobb said.

The defensive success extends beyond the mound. Before Friday, the Rays led the majors with a .996 fielding percentage with one error in six games. The lone fumble came from third baseman Richie Shaffer in a victory over the New York Yankees on Wednesday in Port Charlotte, Fla., which tied them with the St. Louis Cardinals as the only clubs with a single blunder.

Friday, error No. 2 happened in the ninth inning, also by Shaffer, on a sharp grounder to third by Steve Tolleson.

Still, you have to squint to find something spotty with the Rays' defense. That's good news in these feeling-out weeks, when imperfection can be the norm, where rough edges are expected.

''We've been playing great defense,'' Rays manager Joe Maddon said. ''I think that was our second official error (by Shaffer). ... I'm really happy with all that.''

Maddon's men know strong defense well, of course. Last season, according to sportingcharts.com, the Rays were second in the major leagues with a .9902 fielding percentage, behind the Baltimore Orioles' .9910. That was marked improvement from the 2012 campaign, when they ranked 26th in the category with a .9814 total.

The formula for success in baseball is as simple as the dirt where the game is played: Sound pitching + consistent defense = results you want to keep.

Voicing the goal is easy. The practice to reach it can be hard.

''I don't know if I would say I'm surprised,'' Hanigan said. ''But I'm just impressed with any pitcher at any time. When big-league hitters can't sit on pitches, you're in a good spot.''

So far, the Rays appear on their way to placing foes in bad spots time and time again, on the mound and elsewhere. It's early, but the defensive progress has developed well.

The payoffs? Someday, months into the future, the Rays could smile about those too.

''We're extremely happy with ours, so there's no hiding that,'' Cobb said. ''That's just good defense.''

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.