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Rolls wins the battle for third base

MARC TOPKIN
Published March 30, 2004

TOKYO - Damian Rolls finally was named the winner of the springlong competition at third base and was scheduled to be in the Devil Rays' starting lineup for today's opener against the Yankees.

But that doesn't mean there still won't be an ongoing battle.

Rolls had a better spring than Geoff Blum, who was acquired from Houston to be the primary third baseman with Rolls returning to "super sub" duty.

But Rolls, who hit .333 in Grapefruit League play, and Blum, who hit .250, changed that line of thinking.

"I let both players compete in the spring, and Rolls basically deserves to start the way he played all spring and the job he did for me last year," manager Lou Piniella said. "But I'm talking about head-to-head competition this spring."

But Piniella also is talking about not having a "regular" lineup, about frequently mixing and matching to take advantage of hot bats and favorable patterns and trends, and about needing much of April to learn more about his team, which features 13 players new to the organization.

"I don't think that we have a club here that I can just put a set lineup on the field," he said. "We've got a good bench and we're going to utilize it, and if a guy's hot and swinging the bat, well, he'll get playing time."

Rolls, who accepted but never resigned himself to backup status, welcomed the opportunity to have everyday work and realized evaluations will continue.

"I'm ecstatic," he said. "It's been a dream of mine ever since I was a little kid to be an opening-day starter. When I came into spring, that's what I was shooting for. Luckily everything worked out for me.

"But, spring's over. That was just prelim stuff. It didn't mean anything at all."

Blum is likely to get ample opportunity because he is a switch-hitter with some power as a left-hander, and Piniella is seeking ways to boost the offense. He seemed to be holding off on his decision to see if Blum would show more, and will use him at third in certain situations, and at second in place of Rey Sanchez.

OUCH: After a healthy spring, the Rays went into the opener with a few minor injuries, including a sore calf that slowed Jose Cruz, who led the team with six homers. Catcher Toby Hall has a cut and swelling on his nose after being hit on the mask by a foul ball.

CASHING IN: At the end of Monday's 7-1 exhibition win over Yomiuri, Rays PR chief Rick Vaughn was given two unusual requests - send Piniella to home plate for a live interview broadcast in the stadium, and send Cruz out for recognition as game MVP (think No.1 star in hockey) - plus a check for 500,000 yen (about $4,700). "Not bad," Cruz said. "They just told me to go up there. What, am I going to argue with them?"

READY TO GO: The Rays concluded preparations for the opener with the win over the Giants before 47,000 loud fans Monday night (Monday morning Tampa Bay time).

Cruz and Robert Fick hit two-run homers, Tino Martinez had a clutch hit, Mark Hendrickson pitched five solid innings, and Dewon Brazelton and Joey Gathright did well enough to remind Piniella they don't want to stay in the minors for long.

Gathright, despite a cramp, stole second and later scored from third on a shallow fly ball, then electrified the crowd with a run-scoring triple. Brazelton allowed one hit over three innings.

Hendrickson helped his bid to secure the No.3 spot in the rotation, allowing one run on an infield single and giving up only two other hits while striking out four.

MISCELLANY: The sale of 48 percent of the team to New York investor Stuart Sternberg may be delayed briefly because of the recent death of his father. ... Piniella will continue to juggle the batting order and has not set a rotation past the two games in Japan. ... With GM Chuck LaMar getting a two-year contract extension, most, if not all, of his staff will be retained. ... The Rays went into today's game with a four-game opening-day winning streak, longest in the majors.

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