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Ace strong, but seeks handle on slider

Making his third start of the spring, pitcher Scott Kazmir was happy that he could get ahead of hitters with his fastball during four innings of work Tuesday. Now it's just about finishing them off with slider.

By EDUARDO A. ENCINA
Published March 14, 2007


ST. PETERSBURG - Making his third start of the spring, pitcher Scott Kazmir was happy that he could get ahead of hitters with his fastball during four innings of work Tuesday. Now it's just about finishing them off with slider.

Kazmir made his longest start of the spring, but allowed three runs on five hits in the Rays' 11-8 loss to the Phillies at Progress Energy Park, including a two-run homer to catcher Rod Barajas in the fourth. But Kazmir, coming back from shoulder soreness that shelved him for most of last season's second half, was pleased with the outing.

"It felt like I could finally let it go pretty much and with the fastball, I could throw it where I wanted to," Kazmir said. "The things I need to work on are maybe that 0-2, 1-2 base hits. That's just something where I haven't had too much of a feel for my slider. I'm still working on it. The fastball down and away really felt good. I feel like I'm coming back to being more consistent."

Kazmir said a few times he threw his slider over too much of the plate while ahead in the count instead of burying the pitch in the dirt.

"I think he probably wasn't happy with his slider more than anything," manager Joe Maddon said. "I just want him to build into the year. I want him to be stretched out, be healthy, and when the bell rings, I believe all of his weapons will be in place."

Kazmir said he was also happy about working out a flaw in his mechanics that hurt him in his last start a week ago, when he allowed two runs on three hits over three innings against the Pirates.

"It's weird how some small things can change everything," Kazmir said. "With my front side I guess I was just overcompensating and trying to stay completely closed, which is not me. I want to be able to get my lead hand out there and kind of drive through."

UNITY TALK: Maddon used his morning meeting with the team to discuss what Ty Wigginton did after being hit by a pitch Monday and what he said about sticking up for your teammates. "All I will say is that we talked about it," Maddon said. "The teaching point was unity."

GONE FOR NOW: RHP Jeff Niemann wasn't surprised to be optioned to Triple-A Durham and felt he made the best of his stay in camp. "My goal was to come in and show them I was healthy, I can do this, and try to get that little doubt out of everyone's head," he said. "I wanted to showcase my stuff a little bit and have some fun, and I think I did that."

CLOSING TIME: With RHP Seth McClung struggling to nail down the closer job, Maddon said other candidates could emerge when the season opens.

Maddon mentioned RHP Al Reyes as a possible candidate but would steer away from too many back-to-back outings because he is coming off Tommy John surgery. If RHP Shawn Camp continues to show he can get left-handed hitters out, Maddon could look to him. And veteran Dan Miceli, who opened last season as the closer, is always an option, Maddon said.

JOSH WATCH: Tonight's game against the Reds in Sarasota marks another opportunity for the Rays to face former No. 1 pick Josh Hamilton.

Hamilton, batting .538 14-for-26 this spring, didn't make the trip to play the Rays last Tuesday at Progress Energy Park.

MISCELLANY: Despite the loss, Maddon was pleased with his team's at-bats. "The bats worked, we saw 184 pitches today," he said. ... Principal owner Stuart Sternberg will present Double-A Montgomery players with their Southern League championship rings Thursday morning at the Naimoli Complex. ... The Rays have established the Erik Walker Community Champion Award to recognize a minor-league player who represents teamwork, sportsmanship and community involvement. The award is named after Walker, the minor-league pitcher who died in a canoeing accident in October. ... RHP Nick DeBarr, taken by the Red Sox in the Rule 5 draft, was returned to the Rays last Monday after being cut by Boston. He will be reassigned to the team's minor-league camp.