Rays pitchers ready to enter batter's box

Rays pitchers ready to enter batter's box

ST. PETERSBURG -- Every year as Interleague Play approaches, it happens. American League pitchers can be seen around the batting cage wearing helmets and holding bats. Their chests are swelled as they spit and boast about their prowess as hitters.

"If I wasn't a pitcher, I'd ..."

You get the idea.

Jason Hammel, Tony Saunders, and Esteban Yan are the standard for Tampa Bay pitchers since they are all career 1.000 hitters as Rays. Yan carried the ball even farther by distinguishing himself as the only pitcher in team history to hit a home run.

Of this year's group, Andy Sonnanstine leads the way with a .400 average (4-for-10) and James Shields is next at .294 (5-for-17).

The Rays' first Interleague game away from home is May 22 in Miami. In advance of that date, pitching coach Jim Hickey likes to get his starting pitchers to begin swinging the bats about a month early.

"Just to get them acclimated to where they're accustomed to swinging the bat, all the movements," Hickey said. "It can be such a dangerous thing."

Aside from the obvious, which is the fact they are indeed pitchers, the Rays' pitchers are impressive as they go about their business during their batting-practice sessions.

"First round we go right side," Shields explained. "Second round we go up the middle. Third round, just seven swings wherever the ball is pitched. And then we do situational like bunts -- sacrifice bunts, squeeze bunts."

In the end they get to try to square up on a few as a reward for properly executing the drills.

Rays hitting coach Steven Henderson could be seen sitting on the bench while the pitchers were swinging away Monday. When asked if he leaves the pitchers alone, Henderson smiled: "Yes, I do. I leave that to Hickey."

Henderson said he would help if asked, but added: "I've got enough to do with my guys."

And Henderson wouldn't touch the subject of which of the five starters, Sonnanstine, Shields, Scott Kazmir, Matt Garza, or Jeff Niemann, he considered the best hitter.

Niemann said he has not hit since he was in junior high, but Shields did not dismiss the right-hander.

"I think he's learning how to use his body more," Shields said. "At first he was just kind of swinging with his upper body."

Shields then chuckled when noting that Niemann uses a 35-inch bat, which is long by any hitter's standards.

"It probably fits him well because he's 6-foot-9," Shields said. "He's got a pretty good swing though."

Of the larger challenges Hickey faces, Garza with a bat is among them. When asked about the prospect of helping the right-hander improve his prowess at the plate, Hickey smiled, "Well, I don't know if improving Garza is possible or not."

Shields stuck up for Garza.

"I don't know, Garza's looking pretty good right now," Shields said. "I teased him the last couple of times we've hit. I said, 'Did you go to a hitting instructor during the offseason?'"

So will 2009 be the year that one of the Rays' pitchers again goes deep?

"You never know," Shields said. "Everyone is swinging all right."

Sonnanstine dismissed his chances.

"I'm just more of a contact guy, put the bat on it," Sonnanstine said. "Squirt a couple through here and there. Shieldsy's swing is looking real nice this year."

But can one of his teammates walk alongside the exalted Yan?

"Maybe, I don't know," Sonnanstine said. "... Anybody other than me wouldn't be that far out of the realm of possibilities [to hit a home run]."

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