tampabay.com

Defeat in spring opener has familiar ring to it

Friday's spring training opener looked a lot like last year.

By MARC TOPKIN
Published March 3, 2007


ST. PETERSBURG - The Devil Rays are always looking to the future. But for all the good they did in Friday's spring training opener against the Yankees, the way it ended - with a reliever giving up the lead - looked a lot like last year.

A hard-earned 1-0 lead disappeared in the eighth inning when Ruddy Lugo gave up a three-run homer to nonroster INF Chris Basak who wore No. 93, giving the Yankees a 3-1 victory and leaving the Rays, who last season lost an AL-record 60 games they led, with a familiar feeling.

"He just left a ball up, and the guy walked into it and hit a home run," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "Ruddy, he knows. He was upset. ... The first spring training game and the look on his face, he was upset. And I like that. I really believe our guys are focused right now. I think they're starting to get it."

Lugo said he is more focused on winning a late-inning relief role than dwelling on the past.

"My goal this year, that's the situation I want to be in," he said. "First time out, I was a little rusty."

The Rays didn't hit much and booted a few ground balls, but Maddon said there was a lot to be pleased about. They scraped together their lone run when Fernando Perez singled, went to third on an errant pickoff and - after two batters didn't move him - scored when C Shawn Riggans hustled to beat out a infield single.

"We're really trying to have our guys understand that doing the little things is the more important thing to do," Maddon said. "For instance, throwing strikes. Running the bases hard. The leads at first base were great. That's what I'm bearing down on."

INTERESTING MOMENT: Rays starter James Shields wasn't happy with all 18 pitches he threw in the first inning, but he was particularly pleased with one - a well-placed and perfectly executed 0-and-2 changeup that Yankees leadoff man Johnny Damon waved at for the game's first out. Especially because Damon was 3-for-4 with two homers against Shields last year.

"It was pretty good, and he went out and chased it. It was definitely a ball," Shields said. "He gave me a little incentive. He's a good hitter. You can't really pitch over the plate to him. He owned me pretty good last year. It feels pretty good to get off on the right foot with him."

FIRST IMPRESSION: Japanese 3B Akinori Iwamura went 0-for-2 in his major-league exhibition debut, grounding back to the mound (after pulling a ball foul) and flying to center but was pleased with the experience, though disappointed he didn't get to bat against Yankees starter Andy Pettitte. "I was very excited when my name was called," Iwamura said through interpreter Masa Koyanagi.

"For the first exhibition game, I think I did good. The first at-bat, I had the foul ball that was a good hit. And even though in the second at-bat I hit the fly to center, I'm doing better than in the live BP at the beginning of spring training."

ON THE LOOKOUT: Maddon knows exactly what he's looking for when ace LHP Scott Kazmir, who missed the final six weeks last season with shoulder discomforts, pitches the first two innings today: "That he feels good, that he's well, that he throws the ball without any discomfort, which I've seen so far."

Kazmir has no concerns.

"Every day I'm feeling stronger and stronger," he said.

MISCELLANY: The Rays didn't have a baserunner until Rocco Baldelli singled to open the fourth. ... Gary Glover, Tim Corcoran, Edwin Jackson and Juan Salas worked 1-2-3 innings. ... The Rays concluded their two weeks of optional yoga classes with instructor Dana Edison. ... With a large contingent of Japanese media on hand, the Rays served sushi in the media dining tent along with Chick-Fil-A.

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin @sptimes.com or (727) 893-8801. View his blog at blogs.tampabay.com /rays/.