Odorizzi in line for Rays' starting job

Jake Odorizzi had a 3.94 ERA in seven big-league games in ’13.
Jake Odorizzi had a 3.94 ERA in seven big-league games in ’13.
Published Feb. 11, 2014

ST. PETERSBURG — It's only fitting that the single biggest day of Jake Odorizzi's 2013 season came June 18.

That was when he proved to himself and the rest of the Rays that he could handle pitching in the majors, the outing that propelled him to a strong finish, which pushed him into prime position to claim the rotation spot now open due to Jeremy Hellickson's elbow injury.

Because to the rest of the world, that will be remembered as the day Wil Myers made his major-league debut.

"Wil Day,'' Odorizzi said.

The two had been linked since the previous December, when Myers was the centerpiece of a blockbuster trade in which the Rays shipped pitchers James Shields and Wade Davis to Kansas City, and Odorizzi was one of the three "other" guys they got back.

Odorizzi, 23, handled wingman duties well as they roomed together during the spring, politely answering repeated questions about Myers, then enjoying whatever benefits came along from his more-famous teammate. While Myers went on to win the American League rookie of the year award, Odorizzi spent the year bouncing between Triple-A Durham and the majors.

But now, as Odorizzi heads to spring training with a chance — potentially the best chance — to win a job in the Rays' talented rotation, he sees things differently, and hopes others do, too.

"Maybe this will be the year I'm not just part of the Wil Myers trade," he said. "Maybe I'll get out from his shadow this year."

The opportunity will be there, although not exactly the way Odorizzi expected.

For much of the winter, it seemed the 23-year-old right-hander's chances were tied directly to the Rays trading David Price. And when it started to look as if Price would stay, Odorizzi was likely headed back to Durham, no matter how well he did in the spring. But then Hellickson had Jan. 29 surgery that will sideline him at least into mid May, and Odorizzi is back in the Rays' plans, expected to compete primarily with the less-polished Alex Colome.

"In the blink of an eye, everything changes," Odorizzi said. "That's the exact reason I don't pay attention to anything, because you never know what's going to happen."

And while the opportunity has obviously changed — "There's a realistic job to win now, that's the difference" — Odorizzi (OH-dor-IZ-ee) insists his approach won't.

"I can't really think about it that way, just because the opportunity just kind of fell in my lap, I guess you would say," he said. "I'm going to go with the same mind-set — just go in, get ready, throw the ball well, leave the decision up to the front office. …

"That's all you can do. And that's all I can control. So I'm going in with the same mind-set, because nobody's told me that I'm the fifth starter. So I'm going to go in there and try to win a job. That's my mind-set, that's my goal."

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He earned the opportunity with a 2013 performance that seemed to get better as he went, finishing 0-1, 3.94 in seven big-league games and 9-6, 3.33 in 22 starts for the Bulls.

Odorizzi had been doing okay at Durham, and had pitched so-so in three appearances during two previous callups by the Rays, when he was summoned to start the second game of the June 18 day-night doubleheader in which Myers debuted in the opener.

He found the right combination of comfort, command, control, composure, consistency and whatever else he needed. He worked impressively into the sixth inning, allowing the Red Sox only a single run, and pretty much did not look back.

"I think that was my turning point of the season, honestly," Odorizzi said. "Everything just took off from there. Confidence was through the roof.

"When I went back down (to Durham), nothing changed from my throwing up here. So it was nice to have consistent outings every time out."

Odorizzi pitched Durham to the Triple-A championship, then returned to the majors to finish the season working key innings from the bullpen.

The Rays were pleased with his progress throughout the year.

"It's always tough for a young player to be part of a big trade. There's an acclimation process, and I think he handled it extremely well," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said.

"It's just human nature for there to be some kind of an adjustment period, and then you combine that with the challenge of your first few outings in the major leagues and it's a pretty obvious learning curve, but he continued to get better every time he had the ball at the major-league level, and as far as what he could control at the Triple-A level he has had as much success as we could ask for."

The Myers connection still has some benefits, too. With spring rentals hard to find in the Port Charlotte area, Odorizzi knew exactly how to get it taken care of:

"Wil got us a house."

Marc Topkin can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @TBTimes_Rays