Tampa Bay Rays to work harder on fundamentals this season

PORT CHARLOTTE — The Rays aren't going to just talk about doing the little things better this season; they're going to work at it.

In a return to what worked well in 2008, and what wasn't done in 2009, the Rays will again have regular in-season sessions to work on fundamentals such as defense and base-running.

Why the switch back?

"Because we just weren't as good last year, and I want to be as good as we were two years ago," manager Joe Maddon said. "So you reflect upon it and try to figure out what did we do differently last year, and that's my fault that we didn't do that last year.

"It was my idea to do it the year before, and I didn't really process it well enough. So we've got to get back to that."

Maddon said they'll schedule a session, or two, during each extended homestand, working on things like defenses in bunt and first-and-third situations and certain baserunning plays to "refresh" the players' minds.

"We're going to try to be proactive, the quality assurance thing, staying ahead of our problems," Maddon said.

J.P. CHILLIN': The Rays have "put the brakes" on LHP J.P. Howell a bit this spring in an effort to keep him strong at the end of the season, Maddon said.

Howell's 156 innings over the past two seasons are the fifth most among major-league relievers, and the Rays want to prevent a recurrence of last year's late-season fade.

Howell's next session on the mound will be just his second of the spring, and his exhibition appearances will be limited as well. Maddon said the decision was made at the start of the spring and not because of any soreness or issues. He said Howell "fought it a little bit" but understood.

"We just really want to monitor him this camp," Maddon said. "I'm more concerned about maintaining solid arm strength, body strength, etc., and (then) get him throwing, understanding that you want this guy healthy when it comes to October, and rested somewhat."

DOUBLED UP: The second base position will be fluid throughout the spring as the Rays sort out the competition. But for now Ben Zobrist will work there in tandem with starting SS Jason Bartlett, while Sean Rodriguez and Reid Brignac will be paired up and alternate between second base and shortstop.

PITCHING IN: The order isn't set, but these are the pitchers scheduled to work in Tuesday's 3½-inning intrasquad squad game: Joe Bateman, Jeff Bennett, Randy Choate, Mike Ekstrom, Jeremy Hellickson, Carlos Hernandez and Heath Rollins. The teams will be managed by Triple-A manager Charlie Montoyo and bullpen coach Scott Cursi, and all position players are scheduled to participate.

MISCELLANY: Maddon was pleased with the "spectacular" energy and tempo in the pickoff and rundown drills, with the hustle provided by base-runners Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton, Gabe Kapler and even Pat Burrell. … RHP Jeremy Guthrie starts for the Orioles in Wednesday's exhibition opener. … Look for Hellickson to make his exhibition debut in relief Friday — against the Yankees. … Team nutritionist Cynthia Sass visited camp Sunday and consulted individually with players. … INF Joe Dillon said he's getting more comfortable behind the plate and hopes to make his catching debut in the intrasquad game.

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com.

Shields really is a "graybeard"

RHP James Shields is always amused by the repeated references to him being the "graybeard" of the Rays rotation since he's only 28. So after reading 22-year-old Jeremy Hellickson's quote about learning from the "older" pitchers, Shields decided to have some fun with it, taking the mound for his Sunday bullpen session wearing a fake gray beard.

"I saw what Helly said about the older pitchers, so I figured I would be one for the day," Shields said.

The hitters were entertained — and impressed. "That was great, a lot of fun," Elliot Johnson said. "And he didn't lose a thing. He's still very crisp no matter how old he is — or isn't."

Marc Topkin, Times staff writer

Tampa Bay Rays to work harder on fundamentals this season 02/28/10 [Last modified: Sunday, February 28, 2010 9:00pm]

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