ST. PETERSBURG -- The Tampa Bay Devil Rays are hoping Tuesday's selection of Wade Townsend with the eighth pick of the First-Year Player Draft will culminate in a reunion at Tropicana Field between Townsend and his college roommate, Jeff Niemann, the Rays' No. 1 pick in the 2004 Draft. "I'm thrilled to death about [being selected by the Rays]," said Townsend in a conference call shortly after his selection. "Seriously, Tampa is a team I've been wanting to go to for two years and I'm seriously ecstatic about it -- being in the organization, being in the city. And the team they're going to have the next couple of years is going to be special. "I really liked the organization beforehand, but Jeff's my best friend. When we were together playing, we kind of pushed each other along to get better and better. That's obviously something that would be kind of cool, to be in the big leagues at the same time."
For Townsend, a 6-foot-4, 230-pound right-hander a year removed from Rice University, it was the second consecutive season that he was selected with the eighth overall selection of the Draft. The Baltimore Orioles selected Townsend in the 2004 Draft but weren't able to sign him. "Wade Townsend is one of the college pitchers we looked at on the board," said Cam Bonifay, Rays scouting director. "He is a premier pitcher who had a tremendous career at Rice University. ... We had him very high on our draft board last year and of course, we had him high on our draft board this year and short list of what we felt might get to us." Townsend, who helped Rice to the 2003 College World Series championship, earned first-team All-America honors in 2004 after going 12-0 with a 1.80 ERA and 148 strikeouts. He also was named the Academic All-American of the Year for his work in the classroom. He graduated with a degree in history seven semesters after enrolling at Rice. Bonifay called tabbing the college roommates a "very interesting scenario." "[It's] one that you don't usually get a lot of times in this game," Bonifay said. "But if you followed the course of Rice University when they were both sophomores, to watch them pitch and compete last year, when they went all the way down to the last game of the Super Regionals and got eliminated, it's a competitive battle between the two to see who can outdo each other. And I think that's healthy in any organization to have young men who are battling for spots to come to the Major Leagues and be productive Major League pitchers."Niemann is happy about his friend joining his organization. "He's a fiery competitor," Niemann said. "That's what he's always been described as. He gets after it. He doesn't care who's in the box, he's going to win. That's what he did in college. "We became good friends at Rice. ... It's kind of weird, especially nowadays, to have two guys who played at the same college together and were best friends and now are on the same professional team. It's great. I'm very happy for him and I'm glad things worked out. We're getting a great pitcher, so I'm pretty excited about it." Townsend's goal is to reach the Major Leagues as quickly as possible. "You never know what's going to happen," Townsend said. "I feel excited to pitch for an organization that will move you. So it's just kind of up to me and how well I pitch." Townsend has not pitched in a competitive setting in over a year, but according to Bonifay, the Rays have seen him pitch numerous times in recent weeks against extended Spring Training teams of the Devil Rays, Blue Jays and Mets, and they liked what they saw.
"Just the power stuff," Bonifay said. "I've seen him compete this spring just to get himself ready and to showcase himself and last year. His competitive juices really begin to flow when he's on a mound and trying to win a ballgame.
"The thing we were concerned about this year was not so much about how he performed, but to make sure he was healthy. That's why we were there every time he toed the mound. We continued to see those types of things that we needed to see to have the confirmation."
Townsend's selection was a popular one inside the Rays' draft room.
"It was very exciting [for the scouting staff]," Bonifay said. "I think every one of them who have seen him, not this year only, but last year and the years he pitched at Rice University, everybody is really happy that we have added another power arm to our organization, which we feel is very important."
Some project Townsend as a reliever in the future -- he has a big fastball and uses a knuckle-curve as an out pitch -- but Bonifay said once signed, he will begin as a starter.
"I see myself as a starter," Townsend said. "[But] whatever the organization wants me to do [he'll do]. I feel like I'm capable of starting or relieving, but in my mind I'm a starter. But whatever I need to do, I'm going to do."
Despite the troubles the Orioles had signing Townsend, Bonifay said the Rays' organization did not see any "red flags" in regard to Townsend's signability.
"We feel like, in our discussions with our scouts and his representatives, that he wants to sign," Bonifay said. "He wants to get his pro career started and we're very happy."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.