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Opening day start continues eventful stretch for Rays' Shields

BALTIMORE — RHP James Shields has had an eventful couple of months. Since the end of last season, his first full year in the majors, he got married in Hawaii, signed a new contract that could be worth $44-million over seven seasons and today makes his first opening day start in place of injured Scott Kazmir.

"It's amazing the things that are starting to happen," Shields, 26, said. "That's unfortunate that Kaz had to go down, but I'm glad they have enough confidence in me to start opening day.

"Kaz will be back pretty soon … and as soon as he gets back, I think we're going to be pretty good. And I think we're going to be able to hold the fort down until he gets back."

Shields, 12-8, 3.85 ERA last season while pitching 215 innings (second most in team history), has simple goals for this season.

"Two hundred innings, make all my starts, stay healthy," he said. "If I stay healthy, I think everything will fall into place for me. I'm just trying to get some wins for us, trying to get as deep into every ball game as I can and try to give us a chance to win every fifth day. That's my goal."

KAZ SHARP: Kazmir felt "really good" Sunday after throwing about 35 pitches (all fastballs) in St. Petersburg at the minor-league complex in his first session off the mound since March 13, saying everything felt "free and easy."

Pitching coach Jim Hickey said Kazmir's command was "much better" than he expected and that only three pitches were a bit off track. "Everything went perfectly," Hickey said. "Even better than I anticipated."

Kazmir will likely throw another bullpen session Wednesday, mixing in some changeups, and another a few days later when he can use his breaking ball. The Rays have him on a schedule to get back to the majors by the last week of April, though Hickey said things could be "accelerated" if Kazmir continues to progress quickly.

Kazmir, recovering from a Feb.  26 elbow strain, was just excited to be back on the mound, even if it was at the minor-league complex on a Sunday morning.

"I've been playing catch forever," he said. "It was just good to get back on the bump."

MINOR MATTERS: Minor-league rosters were set Sunday, with prized pitching prospects LHP Jake McGee and RHP Wade Davis opening this season where they finished last year, at Double-A Montgomery. LHP James Houser is also back with the Biscuits.

RHP Chris Mason earned a promotion to Triple-A Durham and will join Jeff Niemann, Jae Kuk Ryu and Mitch Talbot in the Bulls rotation. Veteran Mike Difelice and Hector Gimenez will share catching duties, with John Jaso sent back to Montgomery.

Promising OF prospect Desmond Jennings is expected to miss the first month at advanced Class A Vero Beach with a back injury.

MISCELLANY: The Rays are not likely to have interest in OF Jay Gibbons, who was released by the Orioles on Sunday. … With Oakland's win Sunday, the Rays and A's shared the top spring record at 18-8. … This is the third time the Rays have opened in Baltimore; they lost 10-7 in 1999 and 9-6 in 2006.

Times staff writer Joe Smith contributed to this report.

Opening day start continues eventful stretch for Rays' Shields 03/30/08 [Last modified: Sunday, March 30, 2008 10:11pm]
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