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Tampa Bay Rays slot Wade Davis third, Jeff Niemann fourth in rotation

Stretch: B.J. Upton eyes the bag as the Yanks’ Mark Teixeira reaches for the ball and a putout.

EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times

Stretch: B.J. Upton eyes the bag as the Yanks’ Mark Teixeira reaches for the ball and a putout.

TAMPA — The Rays had their reasons for the slightly surprising move of slotting RHP Wade Davis third and the more experienced RHP Jeff Niemann fourth in their rotation.

It was no surprise, however, that they weren't willing to share.

"It's all based on us digging below the surface once again," manager Joe Maddon said before Thursday's 3-2 loss to the Yankees. "And with that, we like the schedule and how it sets up for Davis in that slot and how the schedule sets up for Niemann in his slot, etc. … It was about who was better to go third, Davis or Niemann, and it's our guess that Davis is better to go three."

The reasons are not obvious. Niemann is typically the better pitcher at the Trop, but through the first month each would make four starts at home and two on the road. Davis would face the White Sox twice, and the Orioles, Twins, Blue Jays and Angels once; Niemann would face the Angels, White Sox and Twins twice each.

LHP David Price and RHP James Shields will lead off the rotation, and rookie RHP Jeremy Hellickson is No. 5.

Even though Hellickson didn't make his spring debut until March 11 (due to a hamstring strain) and has worked only 2 2/3 innings, Maddon said they plan to pitch him in the fifth game of the season, on April 6 vs. the Angels, rather than make use of the April 4 off day and skip him.

TURF WARS: The players and coaches were generally pleased with the look and feel of the new Tropicana Field AstroTurf after a 30-minute workout, saying it still plays a little slow but should quicken with more use.

"They're talking about it possibly speeding up to where we want it to be," 3B Evan Longoria said. "So we don't want to make it faster right now and then it gets too fast when it settles in, so I think we're going to wait a couple weeks and see where it settles in."

They were also pleased to hear that it supposedly would take only a few hours to adjust the speed by changing the composition of the fill material, so conceivably changes could be made between the March 30 exhibition game and the April 1 opener.

"If we have to make other adjustments, we'll do that," Maddon said. "But for right now I liked the way it looked and felt, and I think the guys did too."

ROSTER PREVIEW: No final decisions have been made, but Maddon spoke encouragingly about two players competing for jobs, RHP Juan Cruz and OF Sam Fuld.

Though Cruz, who is coming off May shoulder surgery, has yet to pitch with fewer than two days off between outings, Maddon said he wants to work more often and the team has been holding him back. "I have no concerns that he's going to be good two and even three days in a row once the season begins," Maddon said.

And in talking about how much he has been impressed by Fuld, Maddon said: "He's a major-league baseball player right now. … He's been needing opportunity, he's probably going to get the opportunity here right now."

MINOR MATTERS: Price threw 88 pitches over five innings in a minor-league game, as the Rays didn't want him to face the AL East foe Yankees, allowing three runs on seven hits, with one walk and two strikeouts. INF Sean Rodriguez (1-for-2) got work at third base, and Kelly Shoppach (1-for-2) caught Price.

GAME DETAILS: The Rays (8-10-1) led 2-1 on a Manny Ramirez sac fly and a John Jaso homer, but RHP Mike Ekstrom, brought in because Maddon wanted to see him against a lefty, fell behind 3-and-0 and allowed a two-out, two-run homer to Nick Swisher in the seventh. … RHP Chris Bootcheck was pleased with his two-inning start. … Having used their five-man infield earlier this spring, the Rays broke out their over-shift to rightfield against 1B Mark Teixeira. … Johnny Damon, who had two hits and got a nice hand from the Yankees home crowd, was caught in his first stolen-base attempt of the spring: "I know I need to go and work on my starts. … I know (Carl) Crawford did it a lot, so I've got to get on board."

MISCELLANY: The B-Street Band, a Bruce Springsteen tribute band led by Maddon's childhood buddy Willy Forte, will do a postgame concert Sunday in Port Charlotte. … Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg visited the press box. … Bucs coach Raheem Morris and assistant Alfredo Roberts were also on the field pregame.

Tampa Bay Rays slot Wade Davis third, Jeff Niemann fourth in rotation 03/17/11 [Last modified: Thursday, March 17, 2011 11:53pm]
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