CLEARWATER — First, INF/DH Hank Blalock made a good impression. Now he might force the Rays to make a tough decision.
Manager Joe Maddon said before Tuesday's 4-3 walkoff loss that the former two-time All-Star is making a stronger than expected bid for a spot on the 25-man opening day roster.
"I think Blalock coming in and doing as well as he has has probably raised questions I did not anticipate in the beginning," Maddon said. "If he continues along this pace, and I anticipate him to really start swinging the bat well over the next couple weeks, he's going to make it interesting."
Blalock (hitting .278 with a HR) is signed to a minor-league deal that allows him to ask for his release starting April 1, so a decision may have to come before MLB's April 3 midnight roster deadline.
The simplest way to make room is if only one from among Reid Brignac, Matt Joyce and Sean Rodriguez is on the roster. Joyce has been slowed by injury, and Rodriguez is proving to be valuable and versatile, so it could come down to Blalock vs. Brignac.
The next issue would be getting at-bats for Blalock, a lefty swinger who can play first and third but likely would be used at DH at times in place of righty Pat Burrell. "It could open up different options," Maddon said.
Burrell is hitting just .188, though Maddon said he sees "a more consistent or better approach" than last spring.
WADING IN: Maddon said he'll announce a fifth starter today after talking to both RHPs Wade Davis and Andy Sonnanstine. Though Davis has had a rough spring (1-1, 10.24, 25 of 52 batters reaching), he remains the much more likely choice, as much because, with reliever J.P. Howell sidelined, both are needed on the staff and Sonnanstine will be of more help in the bullpen.
GARZA GEARED: The three homers (two to Ryan Howard, one to Shane Victorino) aside, No. 2 starter Matt Garza had another solid outing in what has been a strong spring. "Ready to go," he said.
His most impressive stat? In 212/3 innings (including a Triple-A start) he has walked three. "Garza will miss or walk people when he's trying to do too much," Maddon said. "If he just attacks the zone with his four-seam fastball and judiciously uses his two-seamer he's in a lot better shape. I see this guy as being a strike-thrower whenever he wants to be."
MEDICAL MATTERS: C Dioner Navarro (nerve bruise left shin) is down to one crutch and "feeling better and better" with plans to resume throwing today, but he has no set date for his return. … Joyce (right elbow strain) hopes it will be only a few additional days until he is able to throw to the bases with the necessary zip.
GAME DETAILS: The Rays (13-7) rallied to tie in the ninth when Phillies 2B Chase Utley made an error on Elliot Johnson's ground ball but lost it when Grant Balfour (9.82 ERA) allowed a walk, single and sac fly over the five-man infield. … 3B Evan Longoria had a two-run double. … RHP Joaquin Benoit, making a run at the remaining bullpen spot, retired all four he faced and impressed Maddon with "a really good changeup." … Maddon was annoyed at several missed signs and failed execution in the ninth: "That's the one thing that gets me upset."
MISCELLANY: Maddon said the split of playing time with Cs Navarro and Kelly Shoppach is "going to be pretty much a game by game, series by series, decision." … Today is the annual meeting with players' union officials.
Times staff writer Joe Smith contributed to this report.