Youngsters make 2007 pitch

Published September 20, 2006

ST. PETERSBURG - With a starting rotation full of unproven pitchers, the season's final days will offer those young arms an opportunity to make a push for the starting rotation in 2007.

The Rays will head into next year with an incomplete rotation. Scott Kazmir, Jae Seo and James Shields return, and Casey Fossum expects to return from shoulder surgery by spring training. But Rays manager Joe Maddon will put plenty of stock in these final starts when evaluating what pitchers could complete the starting rotation.

Among those starters trying to impress was Tuesday's starter Jason Hammel -- who lasted just 41/3 innings and allowed five runs on 10 hits - as well as J.P. Howell and Brian Stokes, who will each pitch this weekend against the Yankees. Tim Corcoran would also warrant consideration.

"I'm not really big on spring training performances in regard to making a decision," Maddon said. "I still believe that what happened during the season is more important. So when it comes right down to it, this probably weighs more heavily into it than spring training as far as I'm concerned."

When Maddon conducted his first spring training this season, he made it clear that he values track record more than a stellar spring, so even though these final 11 games seemingly have little meaning, this time is anything but unimportant.

"When you have several guys under the same umbrella and somebody has to make the team, you're going to utilize both things," Maddon said. "You're going to utilize what you saw this year and this training. If it's somebody who had a great season and a horrible spring and the other guy had a horrible season and a great spring, I'd be more inclined to go with the guy who had the good end of the season."

LEARNING FROM THE BEST: Catcher Shawn Riggans knows he will likely receive no more than a handful of starts as this season winds down, but he's trying to take the most from his opportunity in the big leagues. He made his third start Tuesday since he was recalled from Triple-A Durham, but he spent plenty of pregames seeking out other top catchers such as New York's Jorge Posada and Minnesota's Joe Mauer to pick up tips.

"Just being here and being with these guys and talking to guys on the other teams, you can pick somebody's head and talk to them a little bit about the game," he said. "You can never get too much information. I think I've learned a lot about my game just from going around and taking to guys who've been around for a long time. You can't replace experience with anything."

BALDELLI SWINGING A HOT BAT: Centerfielder Rocco Baldelli entered Tuesday's game as the hottest hitter over the past month. Dating to Aug. 18, Baldelli is batting .381 (40-for-105) over 24 games. That is the best average in the AL and second in the majors to Garrett Atkins of the Rockies (.398). Baldelli also has seven homers in his past 15 games since Aug. 30, the fifth-highest total in the bigs in that time.

MISCELLANY: The Rays today will sign a formal agreement to move spring training to Port Charlotte beginning in 2009. The move still depends on the Rays receiving one of the five state grants being awarded on Jan. 1. ... Eighteen of the Rays past 22 games have been decided by three runs or less. ... Orioles catcher Ramon Hernandez is hitting .400 (24-for-60) with 16 RBIs against Tampa Bay this season. ... Orioles DH Jay Gibbons tied a career-high with four hits. ... The Orioles are batting .311 against Tampa Bay and are batting .263 against the rest of the AL East. ... Rays right-hander Edwin Jackson was cleared to throw on Tuesday for the first time since taking a line drive off his head on Saturday in Toronto. ... Maddon hinted that right-hander Travis Harper might be done for the season. ... Maddon is unsure whether Tim Corcoran or Brian Stokes will start Sunday against the Yankees. Whoever doesn't start will be available in the bullpen.