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Utilityman might start at third


© St. Petersburg Times
published March 24, 2002

ST. PETERSBURG -- Russ Johnson hasn't heard anything officially, but he's getting ready just in case.

Given Jared Sandberg's offensive struggles, it is starting to look like Johnson could be the starting third baseman on opening night.

"I don't know exactly what their thinking is as far as if it's going to be an everyday thing or if they're sitting around waiting to see," Johnson said. "The main thing is for me to go out and get ready for the season. I know what I'm capable of doing."

Manager Hal McRae isn't ready to make any announcements, but after Sandberg's average dropped to .184, he moved Johnson, the team's top utility infielder, into the lineup for Saturday and today and said he'd play Bobby Smith on Monday.

Johnson hit .294 with four homers and 33 RBIs last year in what amounted to half a season. He played well during a monthlong stint as the starting second baseman before straining his right quadriceps. He said he is excited by the possibility of starting at third.

"I think there's some concern there at third, and they probably have some concerns with me. But that's all good and fine," Johnson said. "When I've played every day, I know what I can do. It may not be what they want or feel that they need. But I know what I can bring to the table.

"I'm up and ready for it. I'm not going to get scared off."

If Johnson starts, Sandberg likely will go to Triple A and Smith will make the team as a utilityman. The Rays also could keep 12 pitchers and create a spot for Jorge Sosa, the Rule 5 pick acquired on waivers from Milwaukee.

WHAT SCORELESS STREAK?: After his last start, Tanyon Sturtze didn't like being asked about his 14 consecutive scoreless innings. The same talk that can ruin a no-hitter apparently applies to other strings of pitching success.

Sturtze, 31, gave up five runs on four hits in the first inning Saturday, including back-to-back doubles by ex-Rays Vinny Castilla and Julio Franco. Javy Lopez followed with the first of two home runs he hit off Sturtze (2-2) in the Braves' 10-5 victory. "I just made a couple of bad pitches," Sturtze said. "It was a long inning. It's only spring training, so I'm not too worried about it."

Sturtze, who lasted five innings, threw 32 of his 89 pitches in the first. He began the day with the fifth-best ERA (1.13) in the American League. But after two quick outs, Chipper Jones singled to left, and the onslaught began.

"I think that the at-bat against Chipper, when he fouled off all those pitches, just kind of made the inning a little long for me. Just coming out of the bullpen, I won't say I was tired, but it was a long time for me to keep throwing."

TIME TO RELAX: Aubrey Huff hit his second home run in three days in the first. And despite the praise from McRae after the game, the former starter at third and first base still might be without a spot in the lineup when the season begins.

"Huff has probably had the best stretch of 12 at-bats I guess as anyone in camp," McRae said. "(Steve) Cox had a stretch of at-bats that were good, but Huff has had a stretch starting with the night game at Detroit (on Monday) where he's really swung the bat well."

Huff, who might also DH, is supportive of any role McRae sees fit for him and just wants to be in the lineup.

"Since spring's been winding down, I've found myself a little more relaxed," he said. "The first of the spring I felt like, "Okay, I've got to come in here and hit the ball hard every time to prove myself.' I think I put a little bit too much pressure on myself the first couple of weeks."

Huff is hitting .276 in 13 games with two home runs and four RBIs.

NEW, OLD HAND: Right-hander Gerardo Garcia joined the camp after the Rays bought his contract from the Mexico City Tigers. Garcia, 22, was in minor-league camp with the Rays in 2000 but has pitched only in Mexico.

"I want to pitch in the U.S. this year, either in the major leagues or in Triple A," Garcia said.

MISCELLANY: Players union chief Don Fehr is expected to address the Rays on Monday. ... Saturday's crowd of 6,022 was the Rays' first spring sellout this year. ... Shortstop Felix Martinez, out a week with patella tendinitis in his left knee, is "getting better every day" and could be ready in the next few days, trainer Jamie Reed said.

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