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Jackson hopes to build on sharp winter league work

Competition for the fifth spot in the Devil Rays rotation figures to be one of the top battles of spring camp, but Edwin Jackson could have the upper hand.

By EDUARDO A. ENCINA AND MARC TOPKIN
Published February 19, 2007


ST. PETERSBURG - Competition for the fifth spot in the Devil Rays rotation figures to be one of the top battles of spring camp, but Edwin Jackson could have the upper hand.

The 23-year-old right-hander struggled through his first season with the Rays last year but has reason to believe he has a good chance thanks to a stellar performance in the Venezuelan Winter League that gave his confidence a needed boost.

Jackson went 3-2 with a 1.60 ERA in 45 innings over nine starts for Magallanes and held opponents to a .230 batting average. He also experimented with adding a changeup to go with a mid 90s fastball and slider, giving him three pitches to throw in any count.

A focus in camp for Jackson will be cutting down on his walks, something he said adding a third pitch will help with. Last season, he issued 25 walks in 361/3 innings with the Rays.

"Of course, there's always room for improvement, but being able to throw three pitches in any count, as far as confidence to throw it, it's there," Jackson said. "Winter ball definitely helped. I got a chance to keep throwing and work on some things. For me, the more I throw the better it is for me. I had more time to put things together and let things click."

With the top four spots in the rotation set, Jackson is competing with Jason Hammel, J.P Howell, Brian Stokes and Jae Kuk Ryu. Jackson was mostly used in relief last season, pitching to a 5.45 ERA, but manager Joe Maddon believes he can succeed as a starter.

"I'd like to believe his confidence is at an all-time high right now based on coming off that winter ball experience," Maddon said. "If we're going to see him go as a starter, I'd like to think this is the best time to see it."

Also playing into the decision is the fact that Jackson, acquired before last season from the Dodgers, is out of minor-league options. So if he doesn't make the team out of camp, the Rays would risk losing him on waivers.

Jackson said he's entering camp without any pressure on himself.

"I want to go out and have fun and let everything else happen on its own," he said. "There's no need to go out and put any added pressure on myself. When you're competing for a spot and you're on a new team there's always that drive to impress. This year, it's, 'Go out, attack hitters, maybe have a little less walks and make them put the ball in play.' "

WIND CHIMES: With cold temperatures and a fierce, chilling wind, the Rays moved their workout to the indoor hitting cages after the pitchers threw off the mounds. "The Hawk came up and we had to go inside," Maddon said.

The Rays didn't miss much work and spent quality time talking about doing a better job of controlling the running game. "They know how important that is to me," Maddon said.

MISCELLANY: Optional yoga classes start this morning. ... Infielder Brendan Harris was the 14th position player to report early, of 23. ... Pitchers Tony Peguero and Juan Salas remain delayed by visa issues in the Dominican Republic.

Eduardo A. Encina can be reached at eencina@sptimes.com.

Today's schedule

Workout from 10 a.m.-1 p.m. at the Naimoli Complex, 7901 30th Ave. N, St. Petersburg. Weather permitting, the highlight will be the bullpen sessions, led by ace Scott Kazmir, starting around 10:55.

Quote of the day

"The key is to hit the cup."

- catcher Josh Paul, on having the season's first drug test on Sunday.

Number of the day

59 Jersey number of senior adviser Don Zimmer, correlating with his years in baseball. Reliever Shawn Camp gave the number to Zimmer and will wear 22. Zimmer started the tradition with the Yankees 12 years ago and has done it every season but one: He wore No. 50 for two seasons because Yankees star Bernie Williams was No. 51.