ST. PETERSBURG -- In the top of the sixth inning of Friday's 5-0 win over Baltimore, Tampa Bay outfielder B.J. Upton delivered a perfect throw to second base to throw out a tagging Steve Tolleson, likely saving a run from scoring.
With the bases loaded, J.J. Hardy hit a fly ball to deep center field and as the ball approached him, Upton set his feet before gunning a throw to shortstop Elliot Johnson, who tagged out Tolleson. The out came a split second before Bill Hall, who was tagging from third, crossed the plate, keeping the score 5-0.
"To right himself and throw it that hard with that kind of velocity and that accurately, and to be attached to the backside of that play, that's hard to do," Rays manager Joe Maddon said of the play. "There's not many guys that have the arm strength to do that."
Upton has six assists from the outfield this season in 37 games, the same amount he had in 151 games a year ago. In 2010 he had just three in 154 games, and he also had six in 2009. Maddon said he's taken notice of what appears to be increased arm strength.
"It looks like his arm stroke is better ... his release is better, the ball is coming off hotter," Maddon said. "If anything, it looked like he may have been underneath some throws in the past. He's definitely getting on top and the ball is jumping out."
Rays bracing for tight AL East race
ST. PETERSBURG -- From first to last, the five teams in the American League East are separated by just three games after two months. Rays manager Joe Maddon said he doesn't think that gap will widen anytime soon.
"I believe it's going to be like this all season," Maddon said. "I don't believe anybody is going to truly separate themselves. With everything I've seen to this point, it's going to be kind of that thick race."
Tampa Bay currently leads the division over Baltimore by a game with two more meetings this weekend between the two clubs. The Yankees are just half a game behind Baltimore, and Boston and Toronto are each three games back of the lead.
Despite being on top of the division, the Rays have been far from lucky through the first two months with nine players currently on the disabled list, including outfielder Desmond Jennings and third baseman Evan Longoria.
Jennings went 1-for-4 on a rehab assignment with Port Charlotte and is expected to be back with the team within a week. Maddon said Friday that Longoria is still a couple weeks away from a rehab assignment, but is optimistic when his team does get healthy.
"Once you get the guys back, everybody's in the right spots, I do believe you're going to see us become a more consistent baseball team," Maddon said. "Don't get too worried about stuff or wrapped up in emotion and I think good things are going to happen when these guys start to return."
For now, though, Maddon has to deal with what he has and is taking it just one game at a time.
"You play the same game on this day that you do in April," Maddon said. "I really don't apply more weight to any particular game. I don't want our players to. Last year, we were nine and a half games out on September 1 and we were able to win."
Maddon trying to keep Matsui fresh
ST. PETERSBURG -- Rays outfielder Hideki Matsui was removed from the lineup after the sixth inning of Friday's 5-0 win over the Orioles after going 1-for-3 with a two-run homer.
Manager Joe Maddon subbed in Rich Thompson to play left field and said it was to give Matsui rest. Maddon said he wanted to preserve him, saying "he's not 23 anymore."
The veteran Matsui said he was alright with the move and wanted to help the team in any way he could.
Matsui has appeared in three games -- starting two of them in left field -- and has done well. In nine at-bats, Matsui has two hits, both of which were two-run home runs. He is slated to bat sixth in Saturday's matchup with Baltimore and play left field.
• Before Saturday's game against the Orioles, many of the Rays players, coaches and staff attended a memorial service for Ben Topkin, the son of Tampa Bay Times beat writer Marc Topkin.
"It was an incredible service and we just want to make sure we mention that," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "We wish [the family] well, and we hope that Marc gets back soon."
• Matt Joyce wasn't in the lineup for Saturday's game due to illness.
Greg Zeck is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.