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Upton: I'm over errors hump, ready for bigs

B.J. Upton has a message for the Devil Rays. He said he believes he is over his defensive difficulties and ready to play in the majors.

"I'm comfortable right now," Upton said Thursday. "This is the best I've ever felt out there. I think I definitely could play right now with the way I'm feeling."

Watching the 21-year-old try to prove it will be one of the spring's most intriguing stories.

The heir apparent at shortstop has it covered offensively. He batted .303 last season for Triple-A Durham with 18 home runs and 74 RBIs.

But he also made 53 errors, has 153 in 412 professional games (including nine in 45 games with the Rays) and spent time for a second offseason working with legendary shortstop Ozzie Smith.

"My thing this offseason was defense, defense, defense," Upton said. "Before I even picked up a bat it was with a glove. That was my focus during the year. It's not going to stop here. I still have to get better."

But Upton said he is much more confident of "making the routine plays. If I can do that and play solid defense, that's going to be it."

Tampa Bay infielders coach Tom Foley said he had never before heard Upton claim he was ready for the majors.

"He has made improvement," Foley said. "If he believes he's ready that's another step for him. He has to believe he can play. The confidence is a big part of the big leagues no matter what level you're at. If he believes that, it's a great attitude."

Still, with Julio Lugo a lock to start and Luis Rivas and Nick Green fighting for the utility job that includes a backup spot at short, it is unlikely Upton can make the Rays out of camp.

Besides, the Rays would much rather have Upton playing every day for Durham than sitting on the bench in the majors.

"That's out of my hands," Upton said. "It's a decision they have to make. If that does happen, I'm going to go down to Triple A and do the same thing throughout the year. It's not going to stop because I didn't make the team out of spring training."

READY OR NOT: Mark Hendrickson (bruised right femur) said his main concern is being ready to pitch during the regular season.

The left-hander, whose 11 victories last season led Tampa Bay, was noncommittal whether his rehab program included pitching in spring games.

"My goal is we break camp April 3," Hendrickson said. "I may not take the same route as everybody else but I'll be ready for it."

Hendrickson said even if he misses some spring starts, "There's a lot of opportunities to get work in. B games, the minor leagues. We'll see how it progresses."

LONG TOSS: Shinji Moridoesn't just play long toss, he plays long toss; about 250 feet Thursday, a day off from throwing live batting practice.

"I did that a lot in Japan," Mori said through a translator. "By doing that, I can get some rhythm back and keep my balance."

"I like it," manager Joe Maddon said. "I like when pitchers throw long toss. I'm sure it's been part of his routine for a long time. It's impressive to see."

Perhaps, but pitching coach Mike Butcher said he gave Mori a gentle warning.

"I'm not against it," he said. "Japanese ballplayers like to play a lot of catch. I just want to make sure he keeps an eye on it and it doesn't get out of hand."

INTRA-SQUAD GAME: The spring's only scheduled matchup is 10:30 a.m. Tuesday at the Naimoli Complex. It is free and open to the public.

MISCELLANY: Leftfielder Carl Crawford (bone bruise in left wrist) did not take his first batting practice but could do so today. Maddon said he still could add some split-squad or B games to the schedule. He said they would not lessen the team's workout time. "We're not going to back off just because we're playing games," he said. The Rays announced the Sportsound division of Daktronics received the contract to install a state-of-the-art sound system at Tropicana Field. The system, part of the team's $10-million stadium renovation, should be ready for the start of the regular season.

- DAMIAN CRISTODERO,

Times staff writer

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