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Hinske's bat stakes claim for start in right for Rays

The Rays are expected to start Eric Hinske in rightfield to get 
the six-year veteran’s left-handed bat in against righties.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

The Rays are expected to start Eric Hinske in rightfield to get the six-year veteran’s left-handed bat in against righties.

SARASOTA — Eric Hinske not only earned the final spot on the Rays roster, but he will be in the opening day lineup, starting in rightfield Monday in Baltimore.

The Rays chose Hinske, a 30-year-old veteran of six major-league seasons, over Joel Guzman for an infield/outfield job because he's "more of a professional hitter right now," manager Joe Maddon said.

And they plan to use his left-handed bat often, with Hinske likely to get the bulk of the starts in rightfield against right-handed pitchers, with new acquisition Nathan Haynes a defensive replacement and spot starter and right-handed-hitting Jonny Gomes limited to platoon duty.

Hinske, the 2002 AL rookie of the year with Toronto, came to Rays camp on a minor-league contract after spending last season on Boston's bench. He impressed at the plate, hitting .316 with a .361 on-base percentage, and proved versatile in the field — playing right, left, first and third.

"I just know I had to come in and compete for a job. It kind of lit a fire under me a little bit. I couldn't take anything for granted, just come in and work the right way, work hard," Hinske said. "I guess they liked me enough to keep me around."

The Rays set their 25-man roster Saturday — though it won't be official until 3 p.m. today — after 3B Willy Aybar (left hamstring) and DH Cliff Floyd (left knee) showed they were healthy in minor-league games.

Although "both had good days," there is some concern how Aybar will tolerate the cold weather in Baltimore, and, Maddon said, "of course with Cliff we're not quite sure he can DH every day yet, either."

IT'S ELLIOT'S WORLD: The unlikeliest member of the roster has to be super-utility man Elliot Johnson, who wasn't sure if he'd even stay on the 40-man roster after hitting .207 at Triple A last season and was so sure he was going back he left his passport and dress clothes in his apartment in Durham, N.C., and had to send someone for his stuff. And that's after his brush with tabloid fame following his collision with a Yankees catcher.

"It's been really crazy," said Johnson, 24, who is filling in for injured Ben Zobrist.

How far off the board was Johnson coming into spring? "As far as is possible," Maddon said.

OTHERWISE: Maddon said the Rays chose Shawn Riggans as the backup catcher "primarily just to give Riggo his opportunity to play in the big leagues" but consider veteran Mike Difelice "a great insurance policy" at Triple A. & Scott Dohmann got the last bullpen spot over Grant Balfour based on "overall body of work" and more consistency in "strike-throwing ability."

NOW PITCHING, KAZMIR: LHP Scott Kazmir returns to the mound today for the first time since March 13, slated to throw 35 to 40 pitches in a bullpen session at the minor-league complex.

Maddon outlined a plan that, with no further elbow issues, could have Kazmir back in the major leagues by the last week of April: two bullpen sessions, two batting practices and three extended spring/minor-league starts, working up to 90 pitches and/or five innings.

"Kaz is coming along really well," Maddon said. "We'll just build him up, and once we deem him ready, he'll come here."

MISCELLANY: The Rays finished what Maddon called "a good spring" at 18-8-2 after losing 8-4 to the Reds. & Rule 5 pick Evan Meek made the Pirates bullpen but has to stick all year or be offered back to the Rays. & The Phillies might have interest in Balfour. & The back walls of the Trop are now light blue and the batter's eye the same dark blue as the uniforms, though it looked a bit purple Saturday morning.

Hinske's bat stakes claim for start in right for Rays 03/29/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 1, 2008 4:08pm]
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