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New Tampa Bay Rays reliever Jeff Bennett impresses in debut

ST. PETERSBURG — RH reliever Jeff Bennett called getting signed by the Rays a blessing and a chance for a fresh start.

And what the Rays believe they have in Bennett, 29, is a fresh look in the bullpen, a workhorse who will likely start in a middle relief role, a slider-sinker-style pitcher who can reach 93 mph and induce ground balls.

That's what manager Joe Maddon had heard. And it's also what he saw Saturday in Bennett's Rays debut, when he struck out two and gave up a hit in the ninth in the 7-1 win against the Royals.

"Good stuff, just as advertised," Maddon said. "Good slider, saw that. Aggressive nature, saw that. He likes to pitch, likes to pitch often. He doesn't back away or back down. He will fit in just fine."

Bennett, who has spent parts of four seasons in the big leagues, replaces RHP Joe Nelson, who was demoted to Triple-A Durham on Friday night. (LHP James Houser was released to make room on the 40-man roster.)

Bennett was granted his release Thursday from the Braves, with whom he went 2-4 with a 3.18 ERA in 33 games before landing on the disabled list June 25 with a fracture to his left hand. The injury occurred when Bennett punched a wall near the dugout in a loss to the Yankees, an incident he told reporters afterward he was ashamed of. He said he popped the bone back in place and pitched another inning, which actually helped accelerate the healing.

He said he had no hard feelings toward the Braves. "There was no spot for me" after a couple of other pitchers stepped up in his absence, he said, and the Braves did him a favor by allowing him to go to another team.

Bennett said he's healthy now and eager to be used in any role with the Rays, whom he picked over a few other teams due to Maddon, the clubhouse atmosphere and a chance to compete for a playoff spot.

"We had several teams interested, but when it got down to signing, there was really only one option for us, and that was here," Bennett said. "In our minds, this was the best place for us to be."

TOUGH CALL: Maddon said the Rays thought Bennett "could help us a little bit more right now" than Nelson. He praised Nelson for his contributions since signing a $1.3 million free-agent contract in the offseason but said he'd like to see the pitcher cut down on his walks (27 in 401/3 innings).

Maddon said he hoped Nelson could help out in September when the rosters expand.

"I like him. I like him a lot, and I think he's done some great work for us here," Maddon said. "I really enjoyed him, also."

STAYING LOW: RHP James Shields said he has been working through a couple of things mechanically and hopes to keep his fastball down more in his start today. He said leaving the ball up has cost him in recent outings.

"I've just got to be more consistent with locating my fastball," Shields said. "I think if I locate my fastball, everything else will come into play."

LOW RISK: Rays executive VP Andrew Friedman said C Jose Lobaton, whom the Rays claimed off waivers from the Padres on Thursday night, first caught the eye of minor-league manager Matt Quatraro, who managed Lobaton in the winter league.

Quatraro believes Lobaton has "really got some upside," Friedman said. "Likes him from the left side of the plate quite a bit, really likes his receiving ability and throwing."

MISCELLANY: Maddon started Willy Aybar at first base because he wanted to get him more at-bats; Carlos Peña entered as a defensive replacement in the eighth. … SS Jason Bartlett set a career high in RBIs with his 44th and 45th. … LF Carl Crawford tied his career high in walks (37).

New Tampa Bay Rays reliever Jeff Bennett impresses in debut 08/01/09 [Last modified: Sunday, August 2, 2009 7:27am]
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