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Rays ready to hit field to begin Spring Training games

Bedard makes start vs. O's in bid to capture No. 5 spot in rotation

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Finally, the Rays begin to play exhibition games against other teams on Friday.

After two weeks of camp, the Rays will open their 2014 Grapefruit League season with a 1:05 p.m. ET tilt against the Orioles at Charlotte Sports Park, live on Gameday Audio.

"Yeah, it's going to be nice to finally get out there and not have an L screen in front of the pitcher," said Wil Myers, the reigning American League Rookie of the Year. "Have a cage over my head while I'm hitting against live BP. Just get back on the field and compete against another team. I'm just excited about getting going again and starting the new year."

Erik Bedard will start for the Rays, which seems fitting since the veteran left-hander is one of the candidates to fill one of the few open spots this spring. After signing a Minor League deal with the Rays just before the start of camp, Bedard threw himself into the competition for the No. 5 spot in the rotation, a vacancy created by surgery to Jeremy Hellickson's right elbow that will keep the right-hander on the shelf until May.

Right-hander Jake Odorizzi, who is the favorite to land the fifth starter slot, will also pitch on Friday, as well as recently acquired right-hander Nathan Karns, who came to the Rays in a Feb. 13 trade that sent catcher Jose Lobaton and outfielder Drew Vettleson to the Nationals.

"I want to come out and make a good impression the first time, but once again, it's the first time out of the year," Karns said. "I'm just trying to get that one in the books, go in there with an approach. Try and accomplish that.

"First few [outings], you'll still have some get-up juice in your blood, but for the most part, you want to stay calm. Do the things that you're here to work on. Right now, I'm fighting for a position. I just want to come in and do my job the best I can and help the ballclub win any way I can."

Other jobs in question include the makeup of the bench and the composition of the bullpen. Of note, Spring Training will afford fans the opportunity to see the Rays infield, which remained intact over the winter. And what a sheen that infield has. Highlighted by third baseman Evan Longoria, the infield will again have Yunel Escobar at shortstop, Ben Zobrist at second base and James Loney at first base, and all were AL Gold Glove nominees last season.

Count catcher Ryan Hanigan among the newcomers, and the veteran receiver will be looked upon to balance the backstop duties with Jose Molina.

Aside from the uncertainty of the No. 5 spot in the rotation, the rest of the starters are set, starting with David Price at the top, followed by Alex Cobb, Chris Archer and Matt Moore.

The outfield also appears set with David DeJesus in left, Desmond Jennings in center, and Myers in right. It will be interesting to watch a pair of outfield candidates for the future, Kevin Kiermaier and Mikie Mahtook.

Mahtook, 24, exudes youth and seemed genuinely excited about the possibilities of Spring Training.

"It's a great opportunity," Mahtook said. "Things have been going really well. Games can't come soon enough. You're on the field for only so long before you get the itch to play."

While Mahtook noted that being in camp is "a great experience," he isn't in camp just to experience the thrill of being there.

"I'm here to show what I can do," Mahtook said. "Try and make an impression on the big league staff. Really go out there and make a splash.

"Obviously, I'm not expecting to make the team out of camp. I don't know what's going to happen. But my goal coming in here was to play as well as I can and make them have to make a tough decision to send me down."

Meanwhile, Rays manager Joe Maddon said that it's about time for the games to start.

"Oh yeah, I think our guys have been doing well," Maddon said. "I've talked about how I like the pace of things right now. I like the idea of giving them two light days before their first game [on Friday] to get their legs back, even though you do all of this preseason working out and all this wonderful preparation, being on your feet that long, all day on a a soft field will eventually make your legs sore. I think by the time we play on Friday their legs should be pretty good."

There are times when the players almost have a "cabin fever" mentality -- they are so eager to ditch the camp workouts in favor of the exhibition games. Maddon doesn't feel like his team is up to that point yet.

"I haven't felt that this year," Maddon said. "I don't know why. I think part of it is having the same staff in place, and these guys have a nice way with our players and nobody feels overloaded, overworked or anything.

"So I think if you do the dance right up to this point, yes, you want to start playing. But even though it's been hot, I haven't gotten the vibe that everybody has had enough of this."

Bill Chastain is a reporter for

Tampa Bay Rays