ST. PETERSBURG -- Forged from a long blue line of arms, the Rays' starting staff is the strength of the organization.
Even though the names who advance that blue line forward continue to change, the organization's starting pitching should hold true based on the culture that has been created.
Flash back to a Minor League game at the Charlotte Sports Complex in late March. Chris Archer was making his final start of the spring before Opening Day. Watching the performance were fellow starters Jake Odorizzi and Matt Moore. Several years ago, each of the three arrived to the Rays, not yet filled out, but with the right stuff in their pitching arm.
On this day, a visitor looked out at each and observed how their bodies had filled out, particularly in the areas of their core muscles. Each had come a long way. Each had done the necessary work in the weight room, given the right effort toward their training regimens and absorbed the knowledge passed down to them from those before them. They followed the lead that dated back to the attitude and the ideas James Shields brought to the team when he arrived in the summer of 2007.
"I got a lot of help from my cousin, [former Major Leaguer] Aaron Rowand, who taught me how to train the right way," said Shields in a phone interview. "Going through the Minor Leagues, I had a lot of help with him being in the Major Leagues and him telling me how to go about doing things the right way.
"I kind of put my own little twist on it as a pitcher. Obviously, Aaron was a position player. There's no really right way to do it as long as everybody is on the same page together and that chemistry is alive."
Others on the staff bought into what Shields was selling, and a culture was born and perpetuated by the likes of David Price. Now the current group of Odorizzi, Archer, Moore, Drew Smyly and Erasmo Ramirez (once he moves back into the rotation) advances the blue line. Waiting in the wings are talented youngsters like Blake Snell, Jacob Faria, Jaime Schultz and Taylor Guerrieri. They are the future, the eventual custodians of the blue line.
"Having that work ethic and accountability created by the pitchers themselves makes your job so much easier," pitching coach Jim Hickey said. "I would definitely credit James Shields when James Shields basically took over this pitching staff. It really became his staff. He was a leader, a leader on the field. You have to be a good, solid performer to be that leader. And, of course, he was a great performer.
"But he also performed in the clubhouse. He performed in the weight room. He performed in the training room doing all the other things that you need to do in order to be successful. And I think one of the biggest things he brought was accountability -- not only to himself, but to the staff."
Hickey harped on the importance of accountability.
"When you make people accountable for their performances, etc., that makes you a lot better," Hickey said. "And when James left, David Price was ready to step right into that role. And the guy has to be willing to step into that role also, and David was willing. He also paid the price on the field, in the weight room, in the training room, in the clubhouse, in the community.
"And now that David's moved on, Chris Archer has become that guy and he embraces that role. And he has stepped into it seamlessly. And, of course, the performances are part of that. He has performed. He's done everything right. He's conducted himself like a model citizen. I would even consider him a role model for the community in general."
What kind of wisdom is imparted? Archer remembered one of his first conversations with Shields, who talked to Archer about throwing 200 innings in a season.
"It was after the 2010 season and he'd had a bad year, but he still threw over 200 innings -- I don't know how many years in a row he'd done that at that point," Archer said. "And he was happiest about pitching 200 innings because he was expressing the value of that. At the time, there were only two or three other people in the game that had thrown that many innings. And I started to think and reassess my goals and better understand what I wanted to accomplish."
Now that Archer is at the other end of the equation, he wants to help the future hurlers move the long blue line forward -- as Price and Shields had done before him.
"What I do try to express to other pitchers is, 'Here's the goal, here's the mentality,'" Archer said. "'Do your best to achieve that.'"
Shields takes pride in the fact that the mentality and culture he helped instill has carried forward.
"You know, kudos to the Rays for getting the right pitchers," Shields said. "Obviously, you have to be talented as a pitching staff to be able to maintain it the way they have. But there's a sense of pride to see this thing last and continue on. But as far as I'm concerned, the process in which we did things back in the day should carry on for a long time."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.