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Hurlers prep to face NL by taking hacks

Pitchers taking batting practice

ST. PETERSBURG -- Although hardly Silver Sluggers, the Rays' pitchers will soon be in a position to aid their cause from the batter's box. The club's starting rotation has been hard at work in preparation for the start of Interleague Play this weekend, which mandates that pitchers bat.

Pitching coach Jim Hickey, who came from a National League club in the Houston Astros, has had his staff diligently taking batting practice for the past few weeks and is encouraged by what he's seen.

"It's worked out well, the guys are athletic and like to do it," Hickey said. "Some [pitchers] don't like to hit, but [with the Rays] it's really competitive because they all want to be the best one."

The Rays hurlers each had a hit last year and were led by Andy Sonnanstine, who reached base safely in his first two at-bats, becoming only the second member of the Rays to accomplish that feat. More importantly, the right-hander earned the win on June 10 vs. the Marlins, even scoring a run in the 9-4 victory.

"It's going to be different but it's more of a positive change," Sonnanstine said. "[More] like I get to hit -- I'm excited to hit. Not, 'Oh no, I have to hit, what's going to happen?' It's a good thing."

Sonnanstine will be the first hurler to step into the batter's box, as he is slated to toss Friday's game in St. Louis.

"I'm not trying to hit home runs or anything, just make solid contact and, you know, hopefully help my cause," he said.

Hickey, who has been stressing quality at-bats from his pitchers, said being able to handle the bat can help the hurlers on the mound as well.

"As long as we are seeing some pitches and putting our bunts down, [you can] keep yourself in the ball game," Hickey said.

"If we go up in the sixth inning and it's a dead bunt situation, and you can't bunt, [Manager Joe Maddon is] going to send somebody up there to bunt for you. And now you don't pitch in the seventh and you don't pitch in the eighth. [But] if you can handle the bat, you have a chance to stay in the game a couple extra innings, and get yourself a win."

The Rays, who were in first place entering Thursday afternoon's game vs. the Yankees, are hoping to get a few more wins, as they square off against a tough Cardinals team.

Besides Sonnanstine, Matt Garza and Edwin Jackson will take the mound, and step in the batter's box, for the Rays.

Jackson, who was originally an outfielder with the Dodgers, has the most power according to Hickey, and also has an advantage due to a stint in the National League. But the flamethrower says he has one hard rule when at the plate.

"Just don't strike out looking," Jackson said. "That's not an option, don't get caught looking."

The right-hander was 1-for-2 in chances at the plate last season and, like his teammates, is excited to get a few more swings.

"Every time I get a chance to swing the bat it's exciting," Jackson said. "I've always been hitting all my life and then in the National League I was hitting too. Coming into the American League, you lose the bat, so anytime you get a chance to get it back it's always fun."

Although there is a good-natured competition brewing between the staff's hurlers, Hickey has stressed discipline at the plate, allowing the staff to earn their "home run swings" only after they have practiced the fundamentals correctly.

"The whole concept of what we are doing is, we are going up there to see pitches," Hickey said. "If we can see five pitches per at-bat, in three at-bats, that's 15 pitches that we've put on the pitcher and that's one inning. Even if we were to strike out three times, and put 15 pitches on the pitcher, that's really our goal."

In addition to running up the opposition's pitch total, hitting is a refreshing change to the grind on the mound.

"It's like, the most fun part," reliever J.P. Howell said. "There's like, no pressure when you are hitting in the game so it's even more fun. The whole time you are relaxed."

Brittany Ghiroli is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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