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Tampa Bay Rays minor-league pitchers seize chance to impress brass

PORT CHARLOTTE — When left-hander Jason Cromer arrived in camp and had his individual meeting with Rays manager Joe Maddon and executive vice president Andrew Friedman, the nonroster invitee left them with a message:

"I said, 'I'm gonna do my best, and hopefully by the end of camp you guys will know who I am and have my name stuck in the back of your head,' " Cromer, 28, said.

The career minor-leaguer has rarely had the opportunity to showcase his stuff with the Rays brass and was surprised he got called to camp.

But Friday afternoon, Cromer struck out five of the seven Red Sox hitters he faced in a 12-4 exhibition win, drawing raves from Maddon.

"I had never really seen him pitch before; he was extremely sharp," Maddon said.

With the Rays easing their starters — and several key relievers — into spring training because of 2008's lengthy postseason, minor-leaguers such as Cromer and right-hander Neal Frontz have reaped the rewards, grabbing innings against quality teams in the first two weeks of camp.

"It's exciting to know you'll be able to pitch against the guys you watched forever on ESPN — A-Rod, Derek Jeter, some of the guys from other teams," said Frontz, who pitched a scoreless ninth Friday. "It's just another one of those things, it's almost the luck of the draw."

The Rays invited extra pitchers to camp to assume the workload of World Series starters Scott Kazmir, James Shields, Matt Garza and Andy Sonnanstine, who aren't scheduled to throw in games until late next week. Cromer has spent nine years in the Rays' minor-league system and is trying to take advantage. So is Frontz, 24, who closed games for Class A Vero Beach and Double-A Montgomery, with his combined 26 saves leading all farmhands.

"It's been a rough ride; it's the minor leagues," Frontz said. "I always knew I could compete with the best, it's a matter of showing my stuff and showing everyone else around me what I can do to finally get them to see what I can do. It's finally paying off, and I'm here. We'll see what happens."

Maddon said it is a great opportunity for young pitchers, with the biggest thing he's looking for is fastball command. Cromer, who said he was "super nervous," had control from the get-go, giving up just one hit (and no walks) in two innings, setting it up for Frontz, who had a 1-2-3 ninth.

"Cromer pounded the strike zone, Frontz pounded the strike zone," Maddon said. "This is the point — fastball command. We've got to get this across to our young pitchers, and that's what those guys did and that's why they had a nice outing (Friday)."

For Frontz and Cromer, spring training 2009 is an opportunity to build a reputation with those who matter the most.

"I just want to make a name for myself, just show them I can pitch at this level," Frontz said. "Whether I get a chance this year, next year, whenever. At least they'll be able to mention my name whenever something does come up, 'Oh, Neal Frontz.' Just to put it in the back of their minds, so when something does come up, they'll think about me."

Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@sptimes.com.

Tampa Bay Rays minor-league pitchers seize chance to impress brass 02/27/09 [Last modified: Saturday, February 28, 2009 12:02am]
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