BRADENTON — RHP Jason Hammel was beating himself up after Monday's "pretty ugly" outing against the Pirates, one that he considered "unacceptable" for a fifth-starter candidate.
Manager Joe Maddon has said he wants "guys who throw strikes" and have fastball command. Hammel struggled with both Monday, when he walked five in four innings, giving up four runs. It was a sharp contrast from the aggressive approach he showed earlier in camp to help him emerge as a frontrunner for the final rotation spot.
Hammel had walked three in his first 16 spring innings.
"To sum it up in one word, basically unacceptable," Hammel said. "For a rotation hopeful, that's definitely not what you're supposed to get. … The guy that I was in the first few starts and appearances wasn't there today; I wasn't aggressive, I was nitpicking, trying to pick the corners."
Maddon reiterated the Rays "haven't made up our minds yet" on the No. 5 spot, adding they're looking at RHP Jeff Niemann "very seriously." Niemann starts Wednesday, and Hammel, 26, is slated for a start Saturday, with Maddon saying they'd like to make a decision this week.
"I'm telling you, we want guys that throw strikes," Maddon said. "We have a team that plays defense, and you want your pitchers to put the ball in play."
Said Hammel: "Today I wasn't myself. I felt like I gave them a pretty good showing up to that point, and I hope there's a little leeway for one bad game."
Upton update: CF B.J. Upton said his left hand is feeling "a lot better," and he'll return to minor-league game action today in Port Charlotte. But with the plan tentatively set up by the Rays, Upton might not play in a big-league exhibition before they break camp.
Upton took batting practice for the first time since getting hit with a pitch Saturday and "swung the bat well," Maddon said. He was supposed to play defense in a game, but it was rained out. Upton will play three innings in the field today and bat three times as the Rays gradually build his stamina up to play a nine-inning game.
Getting back: With Team USA getting eliminated Sunday from the World Baseball Classic, the Rays soon expect the return of LHP J.P. Howell and 3B Evan Longoria; Longoria is slated to be in the starting lineup Wednesday night. Howell pitched just 31/3 innings in the WBC, but Maddon said the light workload might have worked out for the best, considering Howell is coming off a season in which he logged 891/3 innings. "He'll have maybe three opportunities to get out between now and opening day, and that should be plenty," Maddon said.
Game details: OF Matt Joyce went 0-for-3 as DH in his first spring start. … INF Adam Kennedy made his spring debut at shortstop and made a nice diving play on a sharp grounder to his right. … RHP Lance Cormier pitched two innings of scoreless relief and RHP Joe Nelson another in the 4-1 loss.
Miscellany: LHP Scott Kazmir will pitch in a minor-league game today in Port Charlotte, with RHP Matt Garza doing the same Wednesday. … RHP Derek Rodriguez, a Rule 5 pick, has been sent back to the White Sox. The Rays offered him back and the Sox accepted, paying the Rays $25,000, half the original fee.
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.