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Odorizzi set for return to Busch, this time on the mound

Red-hot righty will start Tuesday in St. Louis against team he grew up rooting for

Wolves in sheep's clothing will dot the Busch Stadium stands Tuesday night -- Cardinal lifers turned Rays fans for a day, maybe a couple hundred, depending on how accurate Jake Odorizzi's estimates are.

Fans will flock from Highland, Ill., a half hour away from St. Louis, and head west along I-55 and across the Mississippi River to see the hometown kid pitch against the hometown team.

"Just the atmosphere alone will be very cool," Odorizzi said. "It will be a fun atmosphere and fun game for me in general."

Odorizzi's family and friends, who "could be anywhere from 100 to 500," will look on as he gets the ball in Tampa Bay's series opener against the Cards, his first career start in St. Louis. Odorzzi said it was a coin flip that his rotation slot would line up with the two-game series at all. Well, lucky him. This is the game Odorizzi wanted to pitch.

The 24-year-old rookie grew up in Highland, and like everyone he knew, Odorizzi rooted for St. Louis. He's been to more Cardinals games than he can count -- at the old and new Busch Stadiums -- watching pitchers toe a rubber he's never pitched from himself.

Odorizzi surely imagined himself striding off that mound when he was making 46-foot deliveries in Little League, and he must have dreamed of it while Fox Sports Midwest glowed on his television screen at home.

Odorizzi used to watch Mike Matheny -- then the St. Louis catcher who now manages the Cardinals -- call games for the playoff teams of the early 2000s. He remembers the first St. Louis World Series of his lifetime in 2006, with Adam Wainwright -- his opponent on Tuesday -- closing out the title.

Odorizzi will be wearing a road-gray Rays uniform when he starts Tuesday. Still, for the first time, a trip to the Midwest means more for him than time spent at home.

"It's not hockey season anymore, so I can't go see a Blues game," Odorizzi said. "I don't really go back unless it's the wintertime. In the summertime, I haven't been back in a long time."

The Rays played the Cardinals in St. Petersburg on June 10, and Odorizzi started that series opener, too. He lost, 1-0, but dominated for 7 1/3 innings, giving up three hits and one run while striking out five.

"Today was the best outing I've ever had," Odorizzi said after the loss. "I came out with a little extra motivation against these guys. I think it could be a good turning point not just for the season, but a career turning point."

Earlier in the season, Odorizzi, who won the fifth-starter job out of Spring Training, hadn't been getting results -- especially in the second and third times through the batting order. Simply put, he wasn't going deep enough into games.

Of his 12 starts prior to the outing against St. Louis, five lasted fewer than five innings and none went more than six. Odorizzi was 2-6 with a 5.31 ERA, and opponents were hitting .279 against him.

He never worried about his job security, saying, "If I thought about it that way, I probably wouldn't be here right now." But with Jeremy Hellickson's return expected in early July, and Erik Bedard pitching well, the question was valid: When the time came, who would be displaced?

Then Odorizzi started against the Cards and got the outing he'd been looking for. In the seven games since, Odorizzi is 4-3 with four quality starts, a 2.28 ERA and opponents are now hitting .204 against him.

So when Hellickson returned, the once-uncertain decision had already been made for manager Joe Maddon. Bedard was moved to the bullpen, despite having little relief experience.

"You're not gonna take Odo out of the rotation right now," Maddon said, simply.

Wil Myers, Odorizzi's old roommate in Kansas City before the two were sent to Tampa Bay in the James Shields trade, has noticed the difference.

"There's something, obviously, that he's made the adjustments on," Myers said. "To be honest, I haven't really paid attention to exactly what he does every single pitch -- I've seen him for years, how he throws."

Myers was right. There is something, and it can be traced back to that June 10 game against the Cardinals.

"I realized some things I hadn't seen before when I went out there," Odorizzi said. "Now I notice it every game, and it's translatable at the end of each game, and I can tweak it."

He won't say what "it" is. He doesn't want "it" to be out there. He doesn't want hitters to key in on "it."

"Just, I did something different than what I normally do," he said. "And now that I'm doing it, it's like, 'Why didn't I do this from the get-go?'"

Whatever "it" is, he's been doing it for a month and a half, and that June start is still a career-changer in Odorizzi's eyes.

And whatever "it" is, it will be on display Tuesday, when the kid from Highland comes home.

David Adler is an associate reporter for
Read More: Tampa Bay Rays, Jake Odorizzi