Rays announce starting rotation

Rays announce starting rotation

ST. PETERSBURG -- Andy Sonnanstine came away the big winner as Rays manager Joe Maddon named his starting rotation Saturday.

Scott Kazmir's prolonged return from a left-elbow strain created a situation where five pitchers were competing for three slots in the rotation. Shortly after the Rays game against the Pirates was called because of rain, Maddon announced that Sonnanstine would fill the No. 3 slot behind Nos. 1 and 2, James Shields and Matt Garza. Edwin Jackson and Jason Hammel will fill the Nos. 4 and 5 slots, though their order has not yet been determined, and J.P. Howell will now compete for a spot in the bullpen. Jeff Niemann was told prior to the game that he had been optioned to Triple-A Durham.

Now that the decision has been made, Sonnanstine said that he was "very ecstatic about it."

"You know, I sure hope Kaz gets healthy and gets back in the rotation, but for now I'm very happy with the No. 3 spot," Sonnanstine said.

Given the way the spring has played out, with Sonnanstine not receiving much information about his status, the right-hander said that he "was definitely" caught off guard by the way things turned out.

"I knew coming in I was throwing the ball well and I had a pretty good shot," Sonnanstine said. "So I set myself up very well for the opportunity. But until today the thing was still up in the air and we really had no idea which way they were going to go."

Sonnanstine has had an excellent spring, and delivered a shining performance Friday night in the Rays' 2-1 loss to the Yankees. He allowed no runs on three hits, two walks, and two strikeouts in five innings, lowering his spring ERA to 0.64 in six games.

Maddon has a lot of confidence in Sonnanstine.

"He's had to prove himself on an annual basis, and he always does," Maddon said. "And I think, because of that, the guy's built up a certain toughness that other people lack, just because of the adversity that he's faced not throwing 90-plus miles per hour and having a dynamite breaking ball. ... He's had to be very creative. I think that's part of being a survivor."

With the Rays having an off-day after the season opener in Baltimore on March 31, Shields could possibly pitch again in the Rays' fifth game of the season against the Yankees. However, Maddon said that would not be the case.

"You could do something based on the off-day, but as of right now, I'm leaning toward keeping everyone in order, regardless of the off-day," Maddon said.

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Jackson made 32 starts for the Rays in 2007, showing flashes of excellence scattered amid a 5-15, 5.76 ERA season. Hammel went 3-5 with a 3.48 ERA in 24 appearances (14 starts) for the Rays in 2007. Both pitchers were out of options, meaning that they would have had to clear waivers to be assigned to the Minor Leagues -- an unlikely scenario, since each would probably have been claimed by another team.

Jackson went 0-1 with a 5.40 ERA in four starts this spring.

"I wouldn't say that I'm surprised, but I wouldn't say that I was expecting this either," said Jackson shortly after receiving the news.

Hammel made five appearances this spring and went 0-1 with a 7.13 ERA. He called Saturday's news "good" but "kind of bittersweet" because he felt like the pitchers who did not make the rotation "could very well have been here, too."

"I definitely feel like I belong here," Hammel said. "Now it's my job to prove the reasoning for the reason I'm here. So I have to go out and keep working hard to show this team that I belong here."

Niemann, who was the Rays' top pick in the 2004 June Draft, has battled injuries throughout his career, but was healthy in 2007 and pitched well this spring, posting a 2-0 record with a 1.50 ERA in four games. Despite his disappointment at getting sent down, the 6-foot-9, 260-pound right-hander said that he felt better about his pitching this spring than he has at any point in his professional career.

"I'm more in control, the way it's feeling, it's more natural," Niemann said. "I'm not searching for things. That's the biggest thing. I have a plan of attack and keys I can go back to and make adjustments whereas last year I was just throwing it, hoping for the best."

And Niemann made an impression on Maddon.

"With 6-9 throwing downhill, it is very attractive," Maddon said. "You saw it against the Indians [Thursday] when they couldn't dig him out. That's what happens, you just can't dig him out. It's an abnormal angle to hit from when a guy's that tall throwing the ball down. You don't get to see that every day as a hitter. It's an exclusive kind of a way to throw a baseball."

Maddon complimented the competition for the available spots and made it clear that keeping the spots will be more difficult than in years past; he expects performance and results.

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.