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Johnson sneaking up in fight for rotation

By JOHN ROMANO, MARC TOPKIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 21, 1999


ST. PETERSBURG -- Among the candidates for spots in the rotation, Jason Johnson has been the quiet one.

He has gone through spring without injury, without fanfare and without a lot of baserunners.

Johnson is tied for second on the team in innings pitched, and his 2.70 ERA is better than most of the other contenders. He's just easier to overlook since he wasn't labeled a favorite like Terrell Wade and he doesn't have the track record of Bobby Witt.

"I feel like I'm in the same position as every other pitcher -- not behind them, not ahead of them," Johnson said. "I'm happy with the way I'm throwing now."

He pitched three innings of one-hit ball against the Phillies on Saturday and did a better job of attacking hitters.

Johnson was in Tampa Bay's rotation during April and May last season, going 2-5 with a 5.70 ERA before being sidelined with a back injury. He pitched in the Arizona Fall League and won a league-high seven games.

"I think I've shown them I'm here to stay," Johnson said. "I know I can pitch against these hitters."

HONDO'S HEROES: Joe Oliver had the winning hit, but it was Frank Howard receiving the congratulatory handshakes after Saturday's 3-2 victory.

With Larry Rothschild out of town for the funeral of chief financial officer Ray Naimoli, Howard was interim manager for the day. Howard took over the club whenever Rothschild was ejected last season, but this was his first time piloting the club from the opening pitch.

"That was the first time I filled out a lineup card in 15 years," said Howard, who last managed with the Mets in 1983. "I had to check it 18 times to make sure I had the names spelled right."

Rothschild was due back in town late Saturday night.

"If we got our a---- kicked, I wouldn't have said anything," Howard said. "Now I'll have to leave a note for Larry."

GAME RECAP: Oliver singled to rightfield with one out in the ninth to drive in Aaron Ledesma with the winning run. Ledesma had reached on an infield single and moved to second on Scott Rolen's throwing error. ... The Rays have won seven of nine and are one game under .500 for the third time.

WADE IMPRESSES: Wade, who started Saturday, has looked impressive in recent outings except for his control. In 102/3 innings, he has walked nine.

Rothschild labeled Wade a favorite to win a spot in the rotation at the start of spring, though Wade could be moved to the bullpen as a long reliever.

"I've done both before, so I don't care," Wade said. ROOKIE'S REVIEW: Ryan Rupe makes his fourth appearance of the spring today, his first since being officially labeled a candidate for the starting rotation.

"It sounded nice, but I'm not sure it changes anything," Rupe said of his status as a contender. "I think every time I've been out there has been a big test."

Rothschild said last week that this performance would not necessarily make or break Rupe's chances, but rather is a continuation of the evaluation process.

ON THE WEB: A revamped Devil Rays Web site debuted Saturday. The site includes a fan message board, game reports and statistics, biographical information, merchandise for sale, ticket information and links to all major-league Web sites. The address is www.devilray.com. TAKING HIS TURN: Not all of the Devil Rays will get the day off Monday. To keep the pitching rotation somewhat intact, Wilson Alvarez will pitch in a minor-league game against the Blue Jays at Dunedin's Englebert Complex at 1 p.m.

OH BABY: Billy Ashley flew home to California after Saturday's game to visit his wife and newborn daughter. Sophia Rae Ashley was born early Tuesday morning. With the off day Monday, Ashley will miss two games before returning Tuesday night.

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