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Kennedy, Zambrano will start things off

The Devil Rays may not know exactly how their rotation is going to look, but they know how its going to start.

Joe Kennedy will be the opening-day starter against Boston on March 31, and Victor Zambrano will be in the No. 2 spot.

"They're both throwing the ball well, and basically they are our two most experienced young pitchers and they deserve it," manager Lou Piniella said. "Kennedy pitched well last year, Zambrano pitched well in the rotation at the end of last year and both are following it up with good springs."

Kennedy did not look good in Thursday's 10-7 loss to the Braves, throwing 70 pitches in three innings and allowing five runs on nine hits and one walk.

"I just didn't execute tonight," he said. "I got my work in, and that's it. That's all spring is, get your work in and move on."

The 23-year-old left-hander has become the ace of the staff after going 15-19 with a 4.50 ERA in 50 career big-league starts. The chance to face Pedro Martinez on opening day is something he is looks forward to.

"It wasn't like shocking, but it was news I still wanted to hear," Kennedy said. "With all the press saying I was "the guy' it's just good to know that I am."

Zambrano, 27, struggled out of the bullpen last season but was 4-4 with a 4.27 ERA in 11 starts after former manager Hal McRae moved him into the rotation. He is 0-1 with a 3.27 ERA in three spring appearances.

Leading candidates for the three remaining spots are Nick Bierbrodt, Dewon Brazelton, Jim Parque, Steve Parris and Jason Standridge. Other possibilities include Luis De Los Santos, Gerardo Garcia and Jorge Sosa.

GRIEVE INTEREST: The Padres talked to the Rays about outfielder Ben Grieve, but it doesn't appear there will be a match. The Padres wanted the Rays to take on a player who is signed for this season and next, possibly outfielder Bubba Trammell, a former Ray who is due $7.5-million over the two seasons. Grieve is signed for this season at $5.5-million.

NEW PITCH: Seth McClung, making an impressive bid for a spot in the bullpen, worked with coach Chris Bosio on a new pitch _ a split-finger fastball. "First time I'd ever thrown it," McClung said. Said Piniella: "That will be a good pitch for him against left-handed hitters."

CATCHING ON: The competition between Jorge Fabregas, Sandy Martinez and Hector Ortiz for the backup catcher's job hasn't been much of a battle.

"I'm going to be honest with you _ nobody's jumped out at me," Piniella said. "I'd like to see somebody just take hold of the job, but to date, quite honestly, that hasn't happened."

Ortiz is 2-for-13, Fabregas 3-for-8 and Martinez 0-for-7. Piniella said the candidates are being judged equally on hitting, calling pitches and playing defense.

INTERESTING IDEA: With Aubrey Huff looking good at third, Jared Sandberg may need somewhere else to play to make the team. Sandberg has been doing extra work at first base and will start there today in Tampa, preparing him for a possible backup role at the corner spots. He also has taken ground balls and throws at second base, his original position.

PITCHING IN: Bierbrodt starts today at Progress Energy Park against the Twins, with Travis Harper, Bobby Seay, Bob Wells and Jesus Colome also scheduled. Garcia, who missed a week when he went home to Mexico to resolve visa complications, makes his first spring appearance in the game in Tampa, with Sosa, Jon Switzer and Brandon Backe also scheduled.

MISCELLANY: Fewer than 200 reserved seats remain for Saturday's game with Martinez and the Red Sox; several hundred berm tickets will go on sale at 10 a.m. Saturday. The Rays went into play Thursday last in the AL in hitting (.250) and on-base percentage (.294). Today's split-squad action ends a stretch of 17 games in 12 days.

GAME DETAILS: The Rays scored more than six runs for just the third time this spring, but could not overcome a poor start. They fell behind 5-0 after two innings and 7-2 after five. Chipper Jones led Atlanta's assault with two hits, two RBIs and two runs scored. Former Ray Vinny Castilla drove in two. Grieve went 2-for-3 with a pair of RBIs. Travis Phelps, who gave up the home run last week to Houston's Richard Hidalgo that ruffled Piniella's feathers, gave up another to the first batter he faced Thursday: Marcus Giles. Reliever Lance Carter, the front-runner to be the Rays closer, retired the Braves in order in two of his three innings, but wasn't happy about the other inning, when he allowed two runs on a walk, a hit batter, a single and a sacrifice fly. "Walks and hit batsmen always come back to haunt you," he said. On the flip side, Carter hit for the first time since spring 2000 and the second time since his days at Manatee High. He grounded out to second. Carl Crawford picked up his fifth stolen base, a Rays spring record.

_ MARC TOPKIN, TOM JONES

SO YOU KNOW LOU?

A daily quiz to see how much you really know about Rays manager Lou Piniella. Answer below.

What other active manager besides Piniella has at least 1,300 wins and at least 1,300 career hits?

a) Tony La Russa

b) Joe Torre

c) Art Howe

d) Mike Hargrove

QUOTABLE

"I don't miss them; I miss my home."

_ ROBERTO HERNANDEZ, former Devil Rays and current Braves reliever, who still lives in Largo.

Keep an eye on ...

Shortstop Hector Luna, the Rule 5 draft pick from Cleveland, gets a start today in Tampa. The Rays have to decide soon if the 23-year-old is worth keeping on the roster.

ANSWER: B

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