DUNEDIN — The race for the fifth starter's spot remains so close it might take until the final week of spring training to be resolved.
And the Rays would be perfectly fine with that.
"I'm glad it's not easy, and I hope it doesn't get any easier either," pitching coach Jim Hickey said after Friday's 3-1 loss to Toronto. "It's a lot more fun to make these difficult decisions than it is to have these things cut and dried unless someone is just head and shoulders above everybody else."
Friday, two leading contenders had good but not great outings.
LHP Carlos Hernandez allowed four hits and three runs over the first four innings, throwing his fastball in the 87-89 mph range. He was most troubled that two of his three walks came to the first two hitters in the third — "I hate to do that," he said — and both scored.
"I'm feeling good," he said. "The main thing is to show them that I'm healthy. And I have to prove that I'm able to get big-league hitters out, and that's what I've been doing so far."
RHP Jason Hammel, facing reserves in the last three innings, allowed two hits and a walk but no runs and considered it an improvement from his last outing.
"I'm just trying to show them that I am supposed to be here and I should be that No. 5 guy," said Hammel, who allowed four runs over three innings against the Red Sox on March 7. "I'm going to do my best to make sure it's a tough decision."
The most consistent candidate, thus far, has been RHP Jeff Niemann, who is scheduled to work in relief today. Less likely options are RHP Mitch Talbot and LHP David Price.
"Everybody so far that's gone out there has done basically what they're supposed to do," Hickey said. "No one has done anything to take themselves out of the picture."
FRONT AND CENTER: With B.J. Upton continuing to feel good in his recovery from left shoulder surgery, the Rays might not need another contingency plan to fill centerfield in light of the dislocated left wrist that will sideline Fernando Perez for three months.
But because they won't know about Upton until the end of spring and they are always thinking things through, they are pondering several possibilities.
With Justin Ruggiano becoming the favorite to be on the roster if Upton isn't ready, one scenario for manager Joe Maddon is platooning in centerfield in addition to right. The plan would be to play Ben Zobrist in center and Gabe Gross in right against right-handers and use Gabe Kapler and Ruggiano against lefties, though Maddon has not yet thought through who would play where.
PITCHING IN: RHP Jason Isringhausen is scheduled to make his spring debut Sunday, and Maddon said he is eager to see how the 36-year-old veteran's bullpen sessions translate into games.
"He threw the ball well (Thursday); much better command; great sink on the two-seamer," he said. "Then the cutter came off of that, and his velocity was good."
Troy Percival is scheduled to make his second appearance of the spring Sunday. Price will make his second outing Monday night in Bradenton in relief of Andy Sonnanstine.
RHP James Shields will stay on schedule for his opening day start by pitching for Durham or Montgomery in the minor-league exhibition opener against a Minnesota farm team on Tuesday's off day in Port Charlotte
GAME DETAILS: The Rays (7-7) didn't get their first hit until two outs in the fourth when Shawn Riggans singled. He then was hit by Reid Brignac's grounder to end the inning. … LHP Brian Shouse made his fifth appearance without giving up a run but has allowed eight hits.
MISCELLANY: OF Matt Joyce, sidelined all spring with lower right leg tendinitis, is tentatively scheduled to make his debut Thursday at DH. … The Rays will play without the DH today for the first time this spring, meaning starter Scott Kazmir will have to bat."