Hammel pitches Tampa Bay past Reds in exhibition, 7-3

Published 2:11 am Thursday, March 19, 2009

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. (AP) — Jason Hammel is making strides toward earning a spot in Tampa Bay’s rotation, and injured outfielders B.J. Upton and Matt Joyce are closer to getting back on the field for the Rays.

Hammel settled down after a shaky start to pitch four innings in Wednesday’s 7-3 victory over the Cincinnati Reds. Upton and Joyce saw limited action in a Class-A game.

Hammel, competing with Jeff Niemann and David Price for the No. 5 spot in the rotation, allowed three runs and five hits, including Edwin Encarnacion’s second-inning homer and sacrifice flies to Joey Votto and Ryan Hanigan.

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‘‘I liked how he came back the last two innings,’’ Rays manager Joe Maddon said. ‘‘He went from 50 pitches for the first two to 19 over the last two innings. I liked the way he settled in and pitched well after that.’’

Hammel began last season as the fifth starter, primarily because All-Star Scott Kazmir was on the disabled list. The right-hander shifted to the bullpen and made 35 relief appearances after Kazmir returned.

Right-hander Mitch Talbot was optioned to Triple-A Durham this week and Price, who made his major league debut in September and was a contributor in the postseason as a reliever, likely will start the season in Durham because the Rays don’t want to rush his development.

Hammel or Niemann likely will be in the rotation, with the other beginning the season as a long reliever.

‘‘His mound composure has been good. He’s really held together well in difficult moments,’’ Maddon said of Hammel. ‘‘I think he’s drawn on some of his experiences from last year.’’

Upton, recovering from offseason surgery on his left (non-throwing) shoulder, played three innings on defense but did not bat.

Maddon said the 24-year-old center fielder, who hit seven homers to tie an AL record for one postseason, will bat and play in the field during another minor league game Thursday.

There’s no timetable for him to play in a major league exhibition.

Right-hander Edinson Volquez pitched three shutout innings for the Reds, but allowed six hits and had to work out of situations with runners in scoring position in every inning. He also walked two and struck out two in his second outing since returning from the World Baseball Classic.