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Tampa Bay Rays reliever Andrew Kittredge has been one of the biggest surprises in one of the majors’ best bullpens, and he is finally getting recognition for it.

The right-hander, who has emerged as the club’s most reliable arm, will be waiting his turn in the bullpen Tuesday when the Rays play the middle game of three against the Baltimore Orioles in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Orioles ace John Means is penciled in to return from the injured list to make the start Tuesday.

Tampa Bay’s most potent weapon this season has been a shutdown relief corps, which has the second-best ERA in the majors (3.23, trailing San Diego’s 2.94) and is tied for second in the American League in saves (26, level with the Chicago White Sox).

The Rays bullpen’s 428 strikeouts are second in the majors to the Chicago Cubs relievers’ 435.

Whether it has been the versatile Kittredge, hard-throwing Pete Fairbanks, sometimes-closer Diego Castillo, red-hot Collin McHugh or newcomer Matt Wisler, manager Kevin Cash has received the results he has needed in high-leverage moments or when the bullpen needs to keep a deficit stabilized in hopes of a late rally.

Kittredge, 31, was dropped from the 40-man roster after sustaining a tear in his elbow last August, but he rehabbed, came to camp on a minor league deal and has been the anchor of an outstanding bullpen.

The Spokane, Wash., native is 6-1 with a 1.62 ERA and two saves in 33 appearances this season. He has struck out 43 in 44 1/3 innings and holds a sparkling 0.902 WHIP.

He has pitched in every inning for the Rays, from the first (four times in an opener’s role) to the 11th.

“Kitt was a guy that we certainly were lobbying for,” said Cash, who selected his reliever as a late replacement in last week’s All-Star Game. “He doesn’t have the saves that some of these closers have, but I don’t know if you could say that anybody has been more valuable to a bullpen.”

Rays rookie left-hander Shane McClanahan (3-3, 4.05 ERA) will be making his 14th career start on Tuesday and his first appearance against the Orioles.

Baltimore received a lift from one of its rookies, right-hander Spenser Watkins, who worked six fine innings Monday in the Orioles’ 6-1 win, their third straight victory. It is their fifth three-game winning streak of the season, but they have yet to win four in a row.

However, the club’s pitching problems still start with the starters.

Manager Brandon Hyde expects Means (4-2, 2.28 ERA) to return to the mound Tuesday.

The left-hander has been on the mend since being pulled from his start after two-thirds of an inning on June 5 against the Cleveland Indians. He was subsequently diagnosed with a left shoulder strain and placed on the 10-day injured list.

Means made three minor league rehab starts this month, going 0-1 with a 5.63 ERA. His latest outing lasted 74 pitches Thursday for Triple-A Norfolk, and he gave up two runs in three innings. All signs point to a return against the Rays.

In six career appearances (five starts) against Tampa Bay, Means has pitched to a 3-1 mark with a 3.71 ERA and 38 strikeouts in 34 innings. The Rays have batted .214 against him.

Having Means and Bruce Zimmermann (left biceps tendinitis, out until August) sidelined for an extended period has led to a patchwork rotation, but Watkins has come through as a sub. He has allowed exactly one run in each of his three starts.

“That’s what I’ve dreamed my entire career is be able to have success in the big leagues,” he said. “To be able to do that three times in a row is incredible. It just pushes me to continue to keep getting better, keep working. Complacency is not an option for me. It’s been an incredible ride so far.”

Hyde added, “He’s pitching, back to the old-school art of pitching, instead of trying to blow the ball by everybody on top of the zone. It’s fun to watch.”

–Field Level Media