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Tampa Bay Rays demote two, leaving two candidates for final bullpen spot

FEELING FINE: Dioner Navarro is congratulated after scoring in the fourth in his first game action since a nerve injury.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

FEELING FINE: Dioner Navarro is congratulated after scoring in the fourth in his first game action since a nerve injury.

PORT CHARLOTTE — Barring an acquisition, the battle for the final bullpen spot is down to two.

The Rays optioned RHP Dale Thayer to Triple-A Durham on Tuesday and reassigned longshot RHP Heath Rollins, leaving RHPs Joaquin Benoit and Mike Ekstrom as the remaining in-house candidates.

Benoit started Tuesday's 9-9 tie with the Red Sox, giving up two runs and two walks in two innings while striking out five and hitting a batter. Though command was an issue, Benoit has been pleased he has just three walks in eight spring appearances after missing the 2009 season due to surgery to repair a torn right rotator cuff.

"I pitched a whole spring training the way they wanted me to pitch, and my arm has responded," he said.

With neither Benoit (5.29 ERA) nor Ekstrom (9.58 ERA) looking impressive in their last outings, it could increase the likelihood the club pursues outside options.

NAVI OKAY: C Dioner Navarro, catching in his first Grapefruit League game since bruising a nerve on his left shin March 20, came through well, and manager Joe Maddon said he should be ready to go opening day. Navarro caught six innings and went 1-for-2, with Maddon saying he'll play again Thursday. "I thought Navi looked good, he was very crisp back there," Maddon said. "He moved well."

NO WORRIES: Though RHP Rafael Soriano gave up four runs, including a two-run homer, in his one inning, he downplayed the results, saying he was working on some things and won't look that way opening day.

"It doesn't matter," he said. "I don't pitch like that, how I'm pitching today. When I pitch the same way that I'll be pitching (in the season), and that thing happened, I'd be mad. But today? No."

Soriano will pitch today in a minor-league game, his first back-to-back outings of the spring, and said he is where he wants to be. "He really hasn't uncorked his fastball yet, and I'm fine with all that," Maddon said.

PRICE CHECK: LHP David Price said he's ready for the regular season after a strong start in a minor-league game in Fort Myers, throwing 62/3 scoreless innings and giving up just one hit while striking out eight and walking one (106 pitches).

"I feel really good right now," he said. "This is probably the best I've felt since I've been in professional baseball."

Maddon said RHP Jeff Niemann will be the Rays' third starter, with Price fourth.

GAME DETAILS: The Rays (18-7-2) rallied to take the lead late, scoring four runs off Red Sox RHP Daniel Bard in the seventh, but the game ended in a tie when the teams ran out of pitchers. The crowd of 7,629 was a sellout.

MAY-BE: LHP J.P. Howell said the latest strength test on his left shoulder was encouraging, showing considerable improvement. "A lot,'' he said. "That's a good sign.'' Even then, he said, it's more likely going to be mid to late May until he rejoins the Rays. "It's definitely doing good,'' he said.

MISCELLANY: There are still a "couple thousand" tickets available for Tuesday's opening-day game at Tropicana Field. … RHP Andy Sonnanstine, who threw one scoreless inning Tuesday, will pitch today in his first back-to-back outings since getting moved to the bullpen. … INF Dan Johnson accepted his outright assignment to Triple-A Durham and hit two homers for the Bulls on Tuesday.

Times staff writer Marc Topkin contributed to this report. Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@sptimes.com

Tampa Bay Rays demote two, leaving two candidates for final bullpen spot 03/30/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 30, 2010 10:08pm]
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