If Kazmir goes down, will Rays follow?

An injury to ace lefty-hander Scott Kazmir has put a strain on the newfound optimism at the Naimoli Complex, says Ted Fleming of Rays Digest.

ST. PETERSBURG - When the doors burst open at the Naimoli Complex on the first official day of workouts you might have heard off in the distance someone playing Frank Sinatra's High Hopes.

With one reach of his right hand to his left elbow, Scott Kazmir gave everyone one of those club feelings with the DJ scratching the needle over the record - and the sound rankled right down to the last nerve, if you pardon the pun.

"Warming up, I was feeling great," he said. "And on my last warm-up pitch, getting ready for the game on the mound, I just felt a little discomfort. I just wanted to stop it right there. I didn't want to keep throwing."

It was no laughing matter to the Rays as visions of another year playing catch-up flashed before them. "Not Scott!" you might have heard.

An MRI today showed an elbow strain rather than structural damage, which is good news for now, even though he will be sidelined indefinitely.

"He is doing much better," said manager Joe Maddon. "It is kind of a strain that he has got and we are going to put forth a program to get him back out here as soon as possible. We established a program with him and our medical guys this morning, and then we are going to start working that plan as of today, and see how quickly we can get him back. It is always concerning [injury], but again the medical people feel pretty good about it and he feels good about it. You never like to see that happen, but we are really confident that he is going to be fine in a short amount of time."

The 24-year old southpaw is being counted on to lead a young bunch of arms to the promise land and if there is any doubt of what the Rays' skipper thinks about him, consider what he said last season.

James Shields was having a breakout season while Kazmir was struggling with his new mechanics on the mound. Somewhat effective, it was not until he went back to the "what got me here" approach did things get back on track.

But before that happened, Maddon was asked if the two hurlers could be ranked as 1 and 1A, causing him to strike that down before the sentence was completed.

"Scott is our number one, period," he said emphatically. That is, if you can ever think of Maddon being intense to any level, he is that laid back.

2008 is supposed to be a watershed year for the Rays and had many, including some of the baseball pundits, saying they would be one of the surprise teams.

Boasting a starting three of Kazmir, Shields and newly acquired Matt Garza, the only thing that could stop them was health and one grab of the throwing elbow shattered the spring calm.

When he was the Director of Player Development and Scouting for Tampa Bay, Cam Bonifay appeared on Speaking of Sports on TBSN Radio 510 and was asked why he thought the Mets were so willing to give up Kazmir in the Victor Zambrano deal.

There were rumblings that the Texas native was one pitch from throwing his arm out, because he generated so much torque on his fastball and due to having a small frame (6-foot, 190 pounds).

At that time, Bonifay admitted he heard the rumors but the Rays were committed to using him "until his arm falls off."

That assertion was not to suggest that Kazmir was a risk but rather to point out what could happen.

The lefty has had minor arm and shoulder issues the last few years and this may be just another bump in his road to superstardom.

"There's not a better time for it to happen," said Maddon. "It gives us time and him time to heal. It is something you never want to see happen, but if it is going to happen let it happen at the beginning of the spring. Again it is just one of those things; I don't think it's going to have any lingering impact as long as we do the right things now."

Therein lies a question. What happens if Kazmir does not respond to a two week layoff and is out longer than expected? According to Kazmir, he still expects to be on the mound opening day.

"Definitely, definitely," Kazmir told MLB.com "That's what we're shooting for."

Rays' executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman, however, wasn't ready to commit to that.

"The good thing is we're talking weeks, not months," he said. "And it's one of these things we're not going to put a timetable on."

After taking some antacids for a queasy stomach, the skipper does have a lot of arms in camp from which to choose should he have to look for an extra hurler. The Shields and Garza duo is a formidable 1-2 punch, though the names available to fill out the rotation are not of the household variety just yet - Edwin Jackson, Andrew Sonnanstine and Jeff Niemann. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------

DIAMOND DUST:

YES, HE CAN STILL DEAL: On Thursday, Feb., 28, at the Derby Lane Poker Room, pitcher Scott Kazmir will host his 1ST Annual Poker Charity event to benefit the Children's Dream Fund. Registration with meet & greet starts at 5:30 p.m. and tournament at 7:00 p.m.

LUCKY SEVEN: Baseball America released its annual Top 100 Prospects list, featuring seven Rays prospects overall and four among the top 17. The Rays and Boston Red Sox led the majors with seven players listed (seven teams tied for third place with five prospects each). The seven Rays named include 3B Evan Longoria (#2, behind Cincinnati OF Jay Bruce), LH David Price (#10), LH Jake McGee (#15), RH Wade Davis (#17), SS Reid Brignac (#39), OF Desmond Jennings (#59) and RH Jeff Niemann (#99). Additionally, RH Jeremy Hellickson, C John Jaso, RH Chris Mason and OF Ryan Royster all made the "Best of the Rest" list.

WE'RE AT .500: So what if they played themselves twice in two days. Technically the Rays finish the intrasquad season at 2-2. Wednesday The Feinsteins beat the Muddogs 4-0 in the 6-inning cold, windy contest. RF Jonny Gomes was 2-for-2 with a double and triple, driving in two runs for the Feinsteins. SS Jason Bartlett tripled in a run in his only at-bat. DH Cliff Floyd walked and hit a sac fly. 12 different pitchers worked an inning apiece.

MORE EATS: President Matt Silverman, Senior Vice President, Baseball Operations Gerry Hunsicker, Senior Advisor Don Zimmer, Special Assistant Fred McGriff, and pitchers James Houser, Trever Miller and David Price will attend Thursday's event at the Polo Grill. Tickets are still available. Call 941-556-4055.

GRAPEFRUIT PROBABLES: Don't read much into it but Edwin Jackson gets the nod to open the Grapefruit League season Friday against the Reds. He's leading the competition for one of the two remaining spots in the rotation. "It's just his turn," Maddon said. "We had to pick somebody." With Kazmir out for the home opener, the team has yet to decide who will face the Blue Jays Saturday. Sunday, James Shields goes against the Pirates in Bradenton.

RYU ARE THERE: RHP Jae Kuk Ryu agreed to a one-year deal.

JUAN STILL GONE: Everyone that is supposed to be in camp, is, with one exception - RHP Juan Salas who continues to be MIA due to visa problems in the Dominican Republic.

TURN ON, TUNE IN: The Rays will broadcast a dozen games this year via their radio partners, 1250 WHNZ and 620 WDAE. There will also be two games telecast by Fox Sports Net Florida. Here is the schedule - ALL GAMES AT 1:05pm UNLESS OTHERWISE NOTED:

• March 1 vs Toronto - WHNZ

• March 2 @ Pittsburgh - WHNZ

• March 8 @ NY Yankees - WDAE --- 1:15pm

• March 9 vs. Cincinnati - WHNZ

• March 15 @ Atlanta (ss)- WDAE, or

• March 15 @ NY Yankees (ss) - WDAE --- 1:15pm

• March 16 vs Detroit - WHNZ / FSN

• March 21 @ NY Yankees - WDAE ---- 7:15pm

• March 22 vs. Pittsburgh - WHNZ

• March 23 @ Reds - WHNZ

• March 28 vs Reds - WHNZ / FSN

• March 29 @ Reds - WHNZ

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Althea Pashman contributed to this report.

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Ted Fleming, the owner/operator of TBSN Radio 510, has been covering the sports scene in the Tampa Bay area for the last decade via the airwaves and in print. His radio show, Speaking of Sports, is syndicated by the Black Athletes Sports Network live from 11:00am to 1:00pm weekdays. He frequently discusses the Rays on his show. Additionally, he is a stringer for the PA-SportsTicker and has previously done work for WEEI in Boston, ESPN 1050 in New York along with Metro Sports and the Florida Sports Network.

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