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Durham pitchers grab spotlight

By MIKE READLING

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 11, 2001


Talk about the Rays farm system and the conversation is sure to focus on the position players and their imminent appearance in the majors.

Players dominating talk about the future include outfielder Josh Hamilton, the organization's top prospect; second baseman Brent Abernathy, whom many expected to make the big leagues this season; and third baseman Aubrey Huff, last year's International League MVP and heir apparent to Vinny Castilla's starting spot.

The Durham pitching staff seems intent on changing that focus.

Through the first five games, the Rays' Triple-A affiliate allowed eight earned runs and six walks in 45 innings and struck out 25. All four of the Bulls' wins through Monday could be attributed to that staff, led by Travis Phelps (2-0), Lee Gardner (2-0) and Victor Zambrano (two saves).

While the Bulls pitchers are tearing up International League competition, most of Durham's hitters have yet to get on track.

The team batting average of .172 reflected a slow start by more than one Rays hopeful.

Abernathy was named the team's top rookie in spring training after hitting .351, and he barely lost out on the Rays' starting second-base job. But he has struggled mightily to start the minor-league season. He was hitting .059 (1-for-17) through five games. His hit was a single.

With Smith designated for assignment Monday, it appears Abernathy's call to the majors is close but probably not until his bat comes around.

Huff also has struggled, improving his average to .188 Monday night while hitting his first home run of the season. Also on the must-improve list are outfielder Jason Tyner (.154) and catcher Toby Hall (.176).

Eleven-year minor-league veteran outfielder Chris Hatcher is a major reason the Bulls' batting average is as good as it is. Hatcher homered Monday against Tidewater for the third consecutive game to improve his average to .294 with four RBI.

CLASS AA ORLANDO: Outfielder Carl Crawford stole a base in three of the first four games and had a five-game hitting streak. ... Infielders Jorge Cantu and Eddy de los Santos each was hitting .400. Cantu was tied for the team lead with two doubles. ... Hamilton, on the other hand, was hitting .048 (1-for-21, 10 strikeouts) through the five games. ... LHP Joe Kennedy opened the season with a one-hit, no-walk, nine-strikeout performance through six innings.

CLASS A CHARLESTON: Former Northeast High pitcher Doug Waechter made an impressive debut Sunday night, leading the RiverDogs to their first win of the season, against Delmarva.

Waechter allowed one run on four hits through five innings, holding the Shorebirds hitless for the first three innings with two walks and three strikeouts. Outfielder Rocco Baldelli, the Rays' first-round draft pick in 2000 (No. 6 overall) was hitting .333 after going 5-for-5 Monday night.

CLASS A BAKERSFIELD: The team has not gotten off to a blazing start as a Rays affiliate. Two of the Blaze's first four games were affected by rain, with one suspended in the fourth and scheduled to be made up May 6 against Mudville. ... Former Tarpon Springs right-hander Ed Kofler is 1-0 after allowing one run on four hits and striking out five in five innings. Enger Veras struck out six in four innings.

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