For Rays, Crawford, crunch time from get-go

By Joe Smith, Times Staff Writer
Published March 6, 2008

ST. PETERSBURG - OF Carl Crawford sure put some pop in Wednesday's 8-4 loss.

The All-Star outfielder starred in a fourth-inning, home-plate collision with Astros C Humberto Quintero, pumping up his teammates and the crowd of 2,319. Trying to score from first on a B.J. Upton double, Crawford raced down the third-base line and saw a bat sitting where he was planning to slide.

Crawford said he "didn't have too much of a choice" when lowering his shoulder and slamming into the 5-foot-9, 215-pound Quintero. The ball was jarred loose and bounced toward the backstop, which allowed Upton to score and put the Rays up 3-2.

Quintero was surprised - "It's spring training - I didn't think he was gonna hit me." But other than a sore chest, he wasn't bothered by it. As Astros manager Cecil Cooper said, "We'd do the same thing if it was our situation."

"We're just trying to set the tone early," Upton said of Crawford's hit. "We're trying to do some things different this year, and I think we're just kind of letting guys know that we're serious about the season."

OF Cliff Floyd joked that Quintero "probably had balls fouled off him harder than" the hit by Crawford, a 6-2, 215-pound former high school football star. But Quintero begged to differ. His last collision came in 2005 with the Giants' Barry Bonds. When asked who packs more punch - Bonds or Crawford - Quintero, wearing a protective wrap around his ribs, flashed a grin, "Crawford hit me harder."

HAMMEL HAPPY: RHP Jason Hammel, a candidate for one of the last two rotation spots, said he attacked hitters better on Wednesday than he did in his previous two appearances. Hammel, who gave up two runs on four hits over three innings, didn't walk anyone. He said his fastball command wasn't there, calling it a "work in progress," but manager Joe Maddon was pleased with his offspeed stuff.

ROCCO HELD BACK: Maddon has said he planned to get RF Rocco Baldelli back into the outfield by late this week, but that likely won't happen. Maddon said Baldelli, who missed most of last season with hamstring injuries, will play today or Friday against the Phillies, but in a DH role; Baldelli was left off the initial travel roster for today's game in Clearwater.

"We would like to do it, but it just does not seem that it's appropriate right now," Maddon said. "With what (head trainer Ron Porterfield) is telling me and just watching the whole thing develop, I just think it's right to keep him at DH for right now."

KAZ ON TRACK: LHP Scott Kazmir said he's "ahead of schedule," in his recovery from a left elbow strain. The Rays ace advanced to "Stage 3," playing catch outside with Porterfield. Kazmir threw 25 times from 60 feet, saying he felt no soreness afterward. Maddon said Kazmir could throw a bullpen session by Monday or Tuesday. Said Kazmir: "I feel great - real fresh."

LHP David Price (shoulder stiffness) threw a bullpen session and "felt great," Maddon said. Price will make his debut Saturday against the Yankees at Tampa.

SOMBER SALAS: The fact RHP Juan Salas is still stuck in the Dominican Republic with visa issues will hurt his chances for a bullpen spot. But his biggest loss came this week, when Salas' older sister died, according to his friend, INF Joel Guzman. "I feel so bad for him," Guzman said. "I know he really wants to be here."

Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@sptimes.com.