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Bullpen aim: get in zone

There would appear to be two ways for the Devil Rays to improve their battered major-league-worst bullpen.

By MARC TOPKIN
Published July 12, 2007


ST. PETERSBURG - There would appear to be two ways for the Devil Rays to improve their battered major-league-worst bullpen.

One is get better pitchers, though as of Wednesday they had not made any changes to their roster.

The other is to get the pitchers they have to do better.

"Strike-throwing has been a big problem for us," manager Joe Maddon said before the three-day All-Star break. "You look at our numbers and obviously we walk too many people (147 in 266 innings) and batting average against us (.301) is very high. We have to stop walking people and start making some pitches and we're just not doing it. We have to get better there."

As with the rest of the squad, Maddon and pitching coach Jim Hickey hope to get the staff refocused on fundamentals and their philosophies, such as pitching to contact.

"In situations from the pitchers' perspective, we have not done good things," Maddon said. "We've not made pitches when we've had to, and a lot of that I think is pitching away from contact and then all of a sudden you have to come into the (strike) zone and you get whacked."

B.J. BACK: The Rays plan to reinstate B.J. Upton from the disabled list and start him in centerfield tonight. Upton went 1-for-3 with a walk while playing seven innings in centerfield for Class A Vero Beach in Dunedin on Wednesday as a final test of the previously strained left quad, which has sidelined him since June 9.

The Rays are talking about making Upton the primary centerfielder, allowing Delmon Young to go back to rightfield, where he is more comfortable, though reducing playing time for Jonny Gomes, who has been impressive since coming back from Triple A. Maddon said, however, that could change again since Upton played well at second base, too.

"We're going to do this, but I'm not saying he might not be an infielder some day yet, too," he said. "I'm not sure. He did a lot better than I had anticipated."

UNIMPRESSIVE COMPANY: With a .177 average, C Dioner Navarro not only has the lowest batting average of any current major-leaguer with at least 200 at-bats, but he is close to some historical lows.

In the past 50 years, only three players got to the All-Star break with as many at-bats as Navarro (209) and a lower average - and one was a Devil Ray, as Greg Vaughn hit .163 (41-for-251) in 2002.

The others are John Shelby, at .157 (38-for-242) for the Dodgers in 1989, and Dal Maxvill, at .164 (36-for-220) for the Cardinals in 1969.

Just missing the cutoff? Don Zimmer, who hit .174 (34-for-195) for the Dodgers in 1959.

Also, Navarro's OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) of .491 is the lowest of any major-leaguer with at least 225 plate appearances by more than 40 points, behind St. Louis' Adam Kennedy at .532.

FAMILIAR TURF: Doug Waechter, the St. Petersburg native continuing his rehab from shoulder surgery, is scheduled to start tonight in Dunedin for Vero Beach. Waechter went 2-1 with a 1.42 ERA in four starts for short-season Hudson Valley. LHP Jake McGee, the impressive prospect, is scheduled to start Saturday in Dunedin.

MISCELLANY: The All-Star break was the first time since June 9-12 the Rays went three days without a loss. ... 1B Carlos Pena opens the second half on an eight-game hitting streak. ... LHP J.P. Howell is scheduled to make an abbreviated start for Triple-A Durham tonight, then a full start Monday and will rejoin the Rays for the July 21 doubleheader in New York.