Houston holds fond memories for some Tampa Bay Rays players

NEW YORK — For several members of the Rays organization, including LF Carl Crawford, this weekend's interleague series against the Astros will be a special homecoming.

The Houston native grew up just minutes from the site in the 5th Ward neighborhood that became Minute Maid Park. But he hasn't played there since the 2004 All-Star Game; he also was with the Rays for a three-game series in 2003.

"It'll be fun to go home, I'm always excited about that," Crawford said.

There are several others with Houston (or Astros) ties, including RHP Jeff Niemann and executive VP Andrew Friedman, who are natives, pitching coach Jim Hickey (former Astros pitching coach), senior VP Gerry Hunsicker (former Astros general manager) and OF/INF Ben Zobrist (former Astros prospect).

Niemann, a former Rice University star who went to many Astros games as a kid and attended the opening of Minute Maid Park, is pumped to start Saturday. "It'll be exciting to be back, seeing a lot of familiar faces," he said. "I'm going to try to stay relaxed, keep the routine the same."

Crawford has arranged for about 40 tickets for family and friends for Saturday. One of his childhood buddies, however, will be on the field for the Astros, CF Michael Bourn. Crawford and Bourn, 27, have been friends since they played on the same Mount Zion youth league team. Bourn's father, Ray, was their coach and was one of Crawford's early baseball influences.

Crawford said he was playing mostly at the Salvation Army until joining Bourn's much more organized travel team. Like Crawford, Bourn has plenty of speed, entering Thursday's game with 14 steals (after 102 combined in previous two seasons).

"His daddy pretty much raised us into baseball, so it was nice to see that pay off," Crawford said. "We've played together since we were little, and it's nice to see two guys who played Little League together both have success in the major leagues."

IN THE SWING: With the Rays beginning interleague play today, RHP Matt Garza will be the first Rays pitcher with an opportunity to hit this season.

Hickey has had the starters (and a few relievers) on a hitting program, with the group taking batting practice again Thursday in New York. Garza said he has come a long way.

"When I got here, I couldn't hit anything," Garza said. "The last three seasons, just working with him and gradually getting back into it, I feel I can at least put the ball in play."

Garza is more concerned about his success on the mound and improving on his last outing, when he gave up one run over six innings but didn't have his best stuff. "It was just mechanical, timing was off by a hair," he said.

HUSTLE PLAY: Zobrist, who completed the rare feat of scoring from second on a sacrifice fly Wednesday, said he had never done it before and recalled seeing it happen only once, by former Cardinals great Ozzie Smith. Zobrist said it was a product of Carlos Peña's 400-foot drive to center, which New York's Brett Gardner caught on the warning track after a dive.

"I was running hard because I thought there might be a chance," Zobrist said. "Obviously that's a rare play."

Manager Joe Maddon said he loved Zobrist's awareness and willingness to run hard regardless of the situation. He hopes others will emulate that.

"I want all our baserunners to play that game right there," Maddon said. "We're almost there, but not there completely. We don't have everybody that has that game awareness yet, but when we do, that's really fun to watch and it definitely inspires the team."

Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@sptimes.com.

Houston holds fond memories for some Tampa Bay Rays players 05/20/10 [Last modified: Friday, May 21, 2010 8:42am]

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