ST. PETERSBURG — Considering how the bullpen was one of the Rays' biggest question marks entering this spring, its performance so far this season could be considered a pleasant surprise.
But manager Joe Maddon said the part of the group he has really "got to settle in," in terms of picking the right times to get them in and out of games, is LHP Cesar Ramos, LHP Jake McGee and RHP Adam Russell.
On Thursday, the trio had a rough night, turning a three-run deficit into seven during the Rays' 9-2 loss to the White Sox. Rays relievers allowed three runs after having not allowed an earned run in the previous eight games.
"Those add-on runs in the fifth and sixth kind of hurt us," Maddon said. "And that kind of takes the steam out of your moments."
In the fifth, Ramos relieved RHP Jeff Niemann to face left-handed-hitting C A.J. Pierzynski with two outs and one on. And Pierzynski ripped an RBI single to put the Sox up 6-2.
Ramos then walked 3B Mark Teahen and hit LF Juan Pierre to start the sixth, recording one out before Russell was brought in. The first hitter Russell faced, RF Carlos Quentin, hit a two-run double, and the game was broke open.
"Wrong pitch to the wrong batter at the wrong time," Russell said.
McGee, a converted starter in his first full big-league season in relief, gave up a two-out, RBI single in the eighth on a rally sparked by a leadoff walk.
"I've just got to go right at them and get ahead," he said.
DAMON BACK: DH Johnny Damon, who missed three games with a bruised left ring finger, returned and went 1-for-4, extending his hitting streak to 10 games, the longest of the season for the Rays.
Maddon said Damon looked good, and the veteran was encouraged with his at-bats and how he felt, though he acknowledged he will have to tolerate some pain.
"I don't think I'll be 100 percent for about four weeks," Damon said. "When you crack the bone, it's never great. But (Thursday) I actually felt improvement. I'm going to go out there, keep competing and hopefully good things keep on happening."
AT FIRST: Casey Kotchman made his fourth consecutive start at first base, and though Maddon said part of the reason is because Dan Johnson missed two games with a sore wrist, Kotchman has been earning his time there.
Kotchman, who has been strong defensively, entered Thursday hitting .375 in his previous five starts. The former Seminole High star then went 0-for-2 with a walk and a run scored.
"Quite frankly, Casey has played well the past couple days," Maddon said. "I don't feel smart enough to take him out right now."
TEEING OFF: 3B Evan Longoria (oblique) hit off a tee for the first time since his injury, saying it was a "huge improvement" from where he was a week ago. He also took some ground balls and did some resistance running, saying he has no residual discomfort and hopes to hit tossed balls in the next few days. He is still on schedule for a return the first week of May.
J.P. DUTY: LHP J.P. Howell (shoulder) said he's pumped to begin his planned 10-game rehab assignment today, and he will pitch for the extended spring team in Port Charlotte at Sarasota. He is scheduled to start the game and throw 25 pitches.
"I'm excited, I'm ready to get it going," he said. "The nerves early on were about my arm, and now it's like I'm excited to get to use it."
Maddon said that while back-to-back appearances are set up for Howell's rehab assignment, it would be "somewhat more interesting" to have him pitch four-out outings at first when he rejoins the Rays, likely around mid May.
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]