Rusty batters just looking

By Joe Smith, Times Staff Writer
Published February 22, 2008

ST. PETERSBURG - For Rays closer Troy Percival, throwing his first batting practice of spring seemed like old hat.

But the 38-year-old joked he wished his hitters would have swung the bat.

That was easier said than done for OF Fernando Perez and several nonroster invitees, who were thrown into the fire when they stepped in the box Thursday. The first live arms they faced in weeks - for some, months - were the cream of the crop: Percival and ace Scott Kazmir. For hitters, the first session of swings each spring are about tracking pitches, sometimes more than swinging at them.

For others, it's about survival.

"You're just trying not to shatter your bat," joked INF Andy Cannizaro, who has played in 13 big-league games in seven pro seasons, "and just get out of there alive."

Some had closer calls than others. OF Jon Weber, 30, who has spent nine years in the minors, found out firsthand why manager Joe Maddon said LHP Jake McGee's stuff was "explosive."

"I almost got hit in the face," Weber said. "He corked out an 87-mph curveball and almost hit me in the cheek."

Maddon was impressed with more than just McGee, singling out RHP Edwin Jackson, Kazmir and Percival, who "threw more and better than I thought he would the first day."

Kazmir said getting feedback from players' swings - if they're early or late - can wait as long as sluggers such asCliff Floyd weren't his guinea pigs at the plate.

"They're vets; you don't want to face them the first time," Kazmir said with a grin. "You want to build your confidence up a bit before you face someone like that."

GET YOUR FREE STUFF: An expanded promotional schedule includes giveaways for all Friday, Saturday and Sunday home games and 42 overall, highlighted by an '80s-style Turn Back the Clock Night on June 21 against Houston, when the Astros will wear their old rainbow-striped jerseys and the Rays will don uniforms of the St. Petersburg Pelicans of the short-lived senior league see list of the day.

ARRIVALS DEPT.: The Rays have sought MLB's assistance but don't know when INFs Willy Aybar and Joel Guzman and RHP Juan Salas will get their visas. The three have started working out at the team academy in the Dominican Republic.

PENA HONOR: 1B Carlos Pena will receive the Tampa Sports Club Rays MVP award tonight at the annual dinner at Tampa's Higgins Hall (St. Lawrence Catholic Church, 5225 N Himes).

Times staff writer Marc Topkin contributed to this report. Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@sptimes.com.