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Oliver shines at plate but wants job behind it


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 10, 1999

LAKELAND -- Joe Oliver is the third catcher on a team that likely will employ only two. To find a spot on the roster, Oliver needs to do something to change Tampa Bay's thinking.

Like maybe hit two home runs in his first six at-bats of the spring.

Oliver, a non-roster invitee, hit his second homer in three days as the Devil Rays beat the Tigers 8-5 on Tuesday afternoon.

John Flaherty and Mike DiFelice won praise for their defensive prowess last season and return as the likely one-two combination behind the plate. However, Oliver's impressive start creates options.

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"I've said it before, I like the job John and Mike did for us last year," manager Larry Rothschild said. "But Joe's been impressive."

Oliver, a 10-year veteran, hit .225 with five home runs in stints with the Tigers and Mariners last season. He averaged better than 10 home runs a season while playing in Cincinnati and Milwaukee from 1990-97.

"I think I can contribute double digits. I can hit in the 10-14 range," Oliver said. "If a pitcher makes a mistake, I can do some damage, I can hit some home runs."

Should Oliver continue to look good, the Rays will have the option of carrying three catchers or possibly moving one in a trade.

Flaherty and DiFelice also are off to hot starts in the first week. The three catchers have combined to go 7-for-16 in Tampa Bay's first five games, not including a pair of homers Flaherty hit in a B game.

NOW BACK TO BUSINESS: Though the stated spring objective is to get players ready and determine jobs on the roster, Rothschild said it's nice to get some victories along the way. It took a while, but the Devil Rays finally picked up one.

Tampa Bay's win broke a four-game losing streak, and the Rays became the last Grapefruit League team to win this spring. Oliver and Paul Sorrento each homered, and Bobby Witt and Rick White turned in strong pitching performances.

"I don't want to say it's important, but it's fun to win," Rothschild said. "It's not fun to lose, and I don't care where you are. We just have other things we have to consider during spring training, so we have to be cognizant of that."

AT WITT'S END: In his first start of the spring, Witt saved face. And we mean that figuratively and literally.

The veteran right-hander threw three strong innings, allowing only one ball out of the infield. He also saved himself from injury by getting a glove on a Damion Easley line drive that was heading toward his face.

The ball caromed out of Witt's glove for a single. On the next pitch, Gabe Kapler hit a run-scoring double.

ROTATING BASIS: Three contenders for the rotation -- Witt, Julio Santana and Jason Johnson -- pitched. But don't ask Rothschild for odds on the front-runners just yet.

"As we get into more innings, it's going to change daily," Rothschild said. "For me to go into that today would be a waste of time because it's going to change the next time around."

NO WALKS IN THE PARK: Johnson, making his second appearance, was angry at himself for giving up a walk to lead off the seventh. In four innings over two outings, Johnson has surrendered three leadoff walks.

"I'm trying to be too perfect when I get to the mound. I fool around and walk the first guy, and then I start getting aggressive," Johnson said. "I need to be aggressive from the first batter on and stop trying to be so perfect."

ACHES AND PAINS: Quinton McCracken, out since the beginning of spring training with a knee sprain, took batting practice for the first time. McCracken is supposed to meet with doctors next week to evaluate his status. ... For precautionary reasons, Jose Canseco was scratched from the lineup after complaining about back spasms. Canseco said he expects to play today against the Blue Jays. ... Randy Winn's quadriceps injury is healing, and he will be evaluated daily.


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