PORT CHARLOTTE — RHP James Shields will make his second straight opening day start April 6 when the Rays face the Red Sox at Fenway Park.
The news may not be a big surprise, as manager Joe Maddon said Shields "earned the right" due to his body of work, coming off a 14-win season in which he led the staff in innings (215).
But the fact that Maddon announced Shields will lead the rotation — followed by LHP Scott Kazmir, RHP Matt Garza and RHP Andy Sonnanstine and an undetermined No. 5 — before Shields made his first spring start caught even "Big Game James" off guard.
"I actually was pretty shocked; you don't normally find out until the last week of spring training," he said. "But it's a great honor. I'm gonna try to start the season off with a bang, hopefully start off with a win against the Bosox and continue what we did last year."
Shields said any of the starters could have gotten the nod. Maddon said "we have three guys we feel who can open up for us at any time" but liked how putting a left-handed Kazmir between the right-handed Shields and Garza gave the rotation balance.
Maddon wasn't ready to announce the fifth starter. There's a strong competition among RHPs Jason Hammel, Jeff Niemann and Mitch Talbot and LHPs Carlos Hernandez and David Price.
But he does know Shields will make his spring debut Saturday, also against Boston. RHP Wade Davis starts Sunday, with Kazmir going Monday and Garza and Sonnanstine on Tuesday, when Price will also pitch. The main starters will likely go two innings.
The Rays are easing Price into camp, but Maddon reiterated the touted prospect is still in the mix for the rotation.
PERCY IMPRESSES: Pitching coach Jim Hickey was pleasantly surprised with how well RHP Troy Percival threw in his first batting practice session since December back surgery. Hickey said Percival, who threw 30 pitches in a 10-minute session, used all his pitches well and was "more advanced really than he needs to be."
Hickey said Percival looked more like the veteran who had 19 saves and a 3.54 ERA before last year's All-Star break and "a lot better" than the injury-plagued Percival of the second half (1-1, nine saves, 6.11 ERA). Percival is due to have one more live BP session before making his spring debut March 12.
"I'll be shocked if you don't see him on the 12th," Hickey said.
LESSON LEARNED: Maddon liked the way Talbot showed poise in bouncing back after giving up early hits in the first two innings. Talbot mixed in all his pitches early, learning a lesson from his last outing (five first-inning runs in Saturday's start), and gave up just one run and five hits in four innings against Puerto Rico.
PEñA PUMPED: 1B Carlos Peña, who will make his spring debut Friday, said his rehab from abdominal surgery has not only put him in better shape, it has also made him more conscious of how important his core muscles are to lengthening his career, and he plans to use the same exercises and as long as he plays.
Peña recalled first suffering the "very uncomfortable" injury in August while running during a home game. He said it would hurt when he ran, moved side to side or even checked his swing. Peña played through the pain, with trainers bringing him heating pads during the game to help. Thinking it would heal with rest and treatment, Peña felt surgery was a "last resort." But now he says it was "the right decision."
GAME DETAILS: The Rays scored their only run in a 2-1 loss on a two-out bunt by Adam Kennedy in the fifth, scoring Fernando Perez.
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.