PORT CHARLOTTE — Jason Hammel has thrown more innings this spring than James Shields, Matt Garza, Scott Kazmir, Andy Sonnanstine and David Price combined. Add Grant Balfour, Dan Wheeler and Joe Nelson, and Hammel still has more innings.
Hammel threw four scoreless innings in Sunday’s 6-3 loss to visiting Toronto to bring his number of innings pitched this spring to six. The other eight have not thrown one pitch.
That’s by design.
The Rays run to the World Series last October produced an offseason that was short by one month. Couple that with a spring training schedule that has 34 games stretched over 39 days because of the World Baseball Classic and a regular season that doesn’t open until April 6 and you have more than the normal amount of time to get a pitching staff ready.
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As a result, Rays manager Joe Maddon said you won’t see the Rays top pitchers until Saturday when the Red Sox make their second trip of the spring to Charlotte Sports Park.
“It worked out actually perfectly that all of this came along this year in a longer spring training, and because of that we can push them back a little bit deeper,” Maddon said. “But having them start on the seventh there is still going to be about the same amount of time they would have had if we started them on the first, which is a normal spring training.”
The pitchers are all for it, though they are getting a little antsy.
“Really antsy, just watching all the games,” Kazmir said. “We got our program. It’s in place. I think it’s a good program. We’re coming along slow but smooth. You feel like you’re kind of way behind just because the games have already started and you haven’t thrown a live batting practice, yet. That just feels weird.”
Maddon was the Angels bench coach in 2002 when they won the World Series. He remembered how difficult the following spring training was for the Angels pitchers.
“I thought the next spring was way too fast, and I thought guys who had been hurt didn’t really have a chance to recover and get healthy,” Maddon said. “Even those who were well had less time from the offseason to that point and then, boom, here it comes again. I felt all these components were in place (this spring) to slow things down and have them get the same amount of work by the time we get to day one. Everything is centered around day one.”
The Rays brought 32 pitchers to camp with the idea of giving the innings during the first nine games to those who will begin the year at Double A Montgomery, Triple A Durham and to Hammel, Mitch Talbot and Jeff Niemann, three guys vying with Price for the fifth spot in the rotation.
“It gives the young guys a chance to show what they got,” Shields said, “and there have been a couple of guys who have stood out.”
Wade Davis, Carlos Hernandez, Niemann, Talbot and Hammel all looked good in their first outings.
Hammel was the first pitcher to get a second outing. He was scheduled to throw three innings against the Jays, but he sailed threw those three innings and Maddon sent him out for a fourth.
“I’ve got this opportunity,” Hammel said, “I’m going to run with it.”
Hammel allowed three hits and a walk against Toronto. In six innings, he’s allowed eight hits and no runs, struck out five and allowed one walk.
“He’s definitely taken advantage,” Maddon said. “He’s been focused since the moment he walked in. That’s what he wants to do, be a major league pitcher.”
Hammel, who has 28 major league starts, was moved to the bullpen last May when Kazmir returned from the disabled list and made 35 appearances the rest of the season.
“They brought me up as a starter and I’ve been in the bullpen. I’m ready to show them I can be a starter,” Hammel said. “I will win the ball game for you if you give me the ball.”
Maddon likened the first week of exhibition games to the fall instructional leagues, where the idea is to give young hitters at-bats and young pitchers innings.
“The whole point is to slow things down a little bit and take advantage of this based on what happened to us last year,” Maddon said.
The younger pitchers will be sent to the minor league camp once Shields, Garza and company start pitching in games. By then, Maddon and the rest of the Rays coaches and front office will have had a good look at the young arms.“We should do it every year,” Maddon said.
And the those arms that will form the Rays pitching staff this season will have plenty of time to get ready for Opening Day.
“It’s actually a good thing to be able to kind of work your way up really slow and not have to get ready for the games when they start,” Kazmir said. “It’s a slow program, and it’s pretty cool.”