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New Tampa Bay Rays reliever Jason Isringhausen has big upside

PORT CHARLOTTE — RHP Jason Isringhausen is confident he is healthy, that surgery corrected what was wrong with his elbow and he is "good to go." Rays officials are pretty sure that if the 36-year-old is well, he can be a strong addition.

And with the former All-Star joining camp Saturday morning, the next six weeks will tell if the Rays bullpen just got deeper and even more experienced.

"Obviously," Rays manager Joe Maddon said, "it could be a big boon for us if we get this guy back and well."

Isringhausen has been a dominant closer for much of the past decade, including seven years in St. Louis, compiling 293 saves. He had only 12 in a long and frustrating 2008 marked by physical breakdowns (knee, elbow) and a short "mental" leave of absence, and he returns with a few things to prove.

First is he can still pitch effectively.

"I wanted to prove to myself that I can still get people out," he said. "And if I stay healthy, I'll get people out. That's the bottom line. I know that."

Next are the seven saves he needs to become the 22nd pitcher with 300.

"That's the main reason I wanted to come back," he said.

And incumbent closer Troy Percival is a close friend who helped recruit Isringhausen to the Rays.

"He told me if you come over here, I'll get you seven," Isringhausen said.

Isringhausen, who has a house in Tarpon Springs he's eager to live in, agreed to an incentive-laden deal that could be worth more than $2 million.

"It wasn't about trying to find the best deal. It was about trying to find the best fit," Isringhausen said. "It's something I haven't had to do in 12 years, make a team. I'm excited. It's good for me."

For starters: LHP Carlos Hernandez, a former Astros starter trying to work his way back from repeated shoulder problems, will start Wednesday's exhibition opener against the Reds.

"There's something about him I like, and I just want to see it out there," Maddon said. "I really believe he's a very competitive young man, and I still think there's a lot left there."

Hernandez, 28, was 9-8 with a 4.54 ERA in 35 games over three seasons with the Astros but hasn't been in the big leagues since 2004. He has had three shoulder surgeries, the last in 2006, and joined the Rays organization last summer, going 2-1 with a 1.04 ERA in six starts at Class A Vero Beach.

Maddon plans to start primarily his "A" lineup due to the pomp and circumstance of the first game at the new spring home, including pregame introductions.

Thinking on the job: Maddon raved about the 15-minute sessions performance specialist Ken Ravizza — "the mental coach" — held with the coaches, players and pitchers.

"Outstanding, with a capital O," he said. "He can help you think in a better way."

Miscellany: 1B Carlos Peña said facing live pitching in batting practice for the first time was a challenge as always: "They have a feast with us. Their confidence is through the roof when they're done with us." … RHPs Jason Hammel and Jeff Niemann and LHPs J.P. Howell and Brian Shouse are among those scheduled to throw today. … Players had eye exams after the workout.

New Tampa Bay Rays reliever Jason Isringhausen has big upside 02/21/09 [Last modified: Sunday, February 22, 2009 7:57am]

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