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Hurlers take their first hacks of season

Pitchers take their first hacks

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ST. PETERSBURG -- A funny sight could be seen prior to Monday night's Rays-Yankees contest at Tropicana Field: Rays pitchers taking batting practice.

In American League parks, such sightings are seasonal -- like ducks migrating south -- only this year having the hurlers in the batting cage is earlier than normal. Since the Rays play in the AL, obviously, they do not hit unless they are the visiting team during Interleague games. The Rays' first Interleague road game is May 16 in St. Louis against the Cardinals; in 2007, the Rays did not play their first Interleague road game until June 8.

Rays pitchers have actually been handling bats since the end of Spring Training, when pitching coach Jim Hickey began indoctrinating the group by having them hit off a tee and soft tossing long before facing live pitching. But Monday marked the first time they ventured into the cage.

"The pitchers love to hit," Hickey said. "All the pitchers think that they can hit and all the position players think that they can pitch. My biggest concern, or goal, is to make sure they're prepared to swing the bat without getting injured. It's a huge, huge, fear, especially [injuring their] oblique."

While Edwin Jackson and James Shields could be seen reaching the cheap seats during batting practice, you won't see the Rays' pitchers just swinging away.

"They all want to hit home runs, which is fine, but we don't just sit there and swing for the fences [during batting practice]," Hickey said. "We hit to try and help us win a game. They go away, then up the middle and then we do a sort of situational round. I'll let them have seven swings just to swing. And then we have the home run round at the end, but you have to earn home run swings with line drives the other way."

Last season, Rays pitchers hit .364 (8-for-22) with four RBIs to lead all AL staffs in batting, hits and RBIs, establishing club records in the process.

When asked to handicap the field of Rays pitchers, Shields went with Jackson, who began his career as an outfielder in the Dodgers' organization.

"E-Jacks is pretty good," Shields said. "He changed his stroke in Spring Training. He's got something a little different going on."

While hits are nice, Hickey has a goal for his pitchers.

"Get three at-bats, put five pitches per at-bat on the pitcher, which is a total of 15 pitches," Hickey said. "By doing that, you are, in effect, taking one inning out of the pitcher. Even if you strike out three times, it's a productive out. Three productive outs and we're in good shape."

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

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