tampabay.com

Rays form cheering section for Hamilton

Rays get to see Hamilton's comeback with the Reds for themselves.

By MARC TOPKIN
Published March 15, 2007


SARASOTA - The Devil Rays have heard all about Josh Hamilton's remarkable comeback this spring with the Reds.

Wednesday, they got to see for themselves.

Hamilton, the one-time top Rays prospect whose career was derailed by drug problems, didn't do that much, going 1-for-3 (beating out an infield single) and playing centerfield.

But just watching him play was special enough for the Rays who once were his teammates.

"It was nice to see him out there with all the stuff he's been through. It's good to see someone rise over all the adversity," LF Carl Crawford said. "It looks like he's the normal Josh Hamilton."

When Hamilton stepped to the plate for the first time, OF Jonny Gomes applauded from the dugout, and INF B.J. Upton moved to the top step for a closer look. Executive vice president Andrew Friedman talked with Hamilton before the game and wished him well. RF Delmon Young, OF Elijah Dukes and Crawford chatted with him during pregame warmups, and CF Rocco Baldelli told him a lot of Rays were pulling for him.

"I thought it was awesome to see him out there playing," Baldelli said. "It gives you a good feeling. I know what kind of guy he is. It was just nice to see him out there."

"I'm a big fan," added 2B Jorge Cantu.

Hamilton, acquired by the Reds in the Rule 5 draft, has been one of the spring's biggest stories, as he has gotten off to a great start (.548, 17-for-31) in his unlikely bid to reach the majors after multiple suspensions.

But he admitted Wednesday was different for him, too.

"I'm not going to lie to you, I felt a little nervous at first," he said. "It was good to see the guys, and talk to them. But it was just a weird feeling playing against the team."

Friedman said the Rays organization wishes Hamilton "a lot of success on and off the field," but there are no regrets about not putting him on the 40-man roster to protect him from being selected in the Rule 5.

"Anyone who has ever met Josh is rooting for him," Friedman said. "When we did it at the time in November it's something we put a lot of thought into."

Hamilton - so far - looks to have a good shot to make the Reds' big-league team, a requirement of the Rule 5 process. But even if he doesn't, it's unlikely he'd end up back with Rays as he has shown enough that he probably wouldn't get through waivers. And even if he did and was offered back to the Rays, he has the right to refuse the assignment and become a free agent.

MORE CUTS: The Rays further reduced their roster to 42 Wednesday by optioning RHP Jason Hammel, LHP Chris Seddon and INFs Wes Bankston and Elliot Johnson to Triple-A Durham.

Hammel, 24, is the only one with major-league experience (going 0-6, 7.77 in nine starts) and the only one who had a real chance to make this team this spring as the No. 5 starter, but he showed he needs more work on strike-throwing and consistency.

"It's definitely disappointing," Hammel said. "I'll figure out a way to get back."

Manager Joe Maddon said the Rays feel Hammel "is going to be a very good major-league pitcher" but is "not quite" ready.

"The big thing for me is strike-throwing, just overall command of all of his pitches," Maddon said. "We've seen him really good and some other times not as good and that's just a sign that he needs more time. We believe over time he's going to become way more consistent in his strike-throwing, and then you're going to see him pitch into sixth, seventh and eighth inning more consistently."

MORE LOSING: The Rays lost their 12th straight and dropped to 1-13 overall, but Maddon said he wasn't concerned - yet.

"I'm looking around March 20, the day after the off day, I really want to see us turning this thing around," he said. "We'll be playing mostly a solid, set lineup and at that point I want to see things starting to change. ... That's the moment I want to see us play our in-season kind of game."

The biggest problem has been a lack of offense, which Maddon admits is a result of his emphasis on taking more pitches. The Rays had three hits Wednesday and have a .217 team average.

SNACK ATTACK: As a followup to their session with a nutritionist, the Rays have taken regular soda and candy out of their clubhouse and will also ban chips once the current supply is exhausted.

AKI UPDATE: Japanese 3B Akinori Iwamura returned to the lineup, having gotten Tuesday off after telling Maddon he was tired. Iwamura grounded out to second in his first two at-bats and struck out and is now 1-for-20, an .050 average. Maddon said he remains confident Iwamura will make the necessary adjustments and be a front-line player. "He's showing signs of getting crispier," Maddon said.

MISCELLANY: The Rays could have some interest, RHP Alay Soler, the Cuban defector released by the Mets earlier this week, on a minor-league deal. ... Baldelli hit his first spring homer. ... Principal owner Stuart Sternberg is expected at tonight's game in Winter Haven. ... The Rays broke out their modified defensive shift against Reds left-handed slugger Adam Dunn, with Cantu in short rightfield. ... Cantu got his glove knocked off in a slight collision with baserunner Norris Hooper. ... Shawn Camp and Ruddy Lugo each had impressive 1-2-3 innings.