ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Manager Lou Piniella returned to camp after missing five straight days while tending to his father, Louis Sr., who is in a Tampa hospital with heart problems.

"It's nice to be back," Piniella said. "The coaches have done a real nice job of running this camp. It goes to show, you give them autonomy like I do and the best comes out in them. The players have worked hard and everything's in good order. Really, I wasn't missed. But I'm happy to be back."

Piniella said he was impressed by what he saw on the field on Friday.

"It's good to get back here and take a look and see where our young kids are and how things are going," Piniella said. "The coaches have done their job. The evaluation part of this thing starts here pretty soon. I think that's where I am needed. I was pleased with the workout today, obviously."

Piniella said his father's status has not changed and he was headed back to the hospital after a meeting with his coaches.

"He's a battler, he's fighting," Piniella said. "Our family has done all it can. But it was good for me to get out and relax a little and get my mind off things."

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Promising pitching: Piniella said the more he watches the mix of veteran pitchers and youngsters he has in camp, the more optimistic he becomes.

"When it's all said and done, I think we are going to be able to put together a pretty nice little pitching staff with some veterans and younger ones," Piniella said. "I've always liked the idea of going to a Major League camp and thinking to myself, 'Boy, I hope there are about 15 or 16 candidates for 12 spots the last week of Spring Training.' I honestly feel there could be a possibility of that here this year."

And when Piniella looks back on his first two camps with the Rays, there is no comparison.

"In the last two years, we've come a pretty good ways," Piniella said. "There is no question that the arm strength is here."

Quotable: "That was a little wakeup call." -- Rookie Jeff Niemann on a ball blistered right back at him by outfielder Danny Bautista as Niemann threw live batting practice for the first time. The line drive made Niemann sprawl a bit but luckily was stopped by the pitching net on the mound.

Quick hits: Outfielder Matt Diaz, who was released by the Rays last Friday, signed with the Royals and has been invited to Spring Training in Arizona. "I really enjoyed my time with the Devil Rays," said Diaz, a Lakeland native. "Maybe I can come back in five or six years as a free agent." ... Starter Rob Bell will appear on the Bay News 9's "Sports Connection" on Saturday night at 11. ... Starter Seth McClung will appear on "Sunday Sports Extra" at 11 p.m. on WFLA-Newschannel 8. ... Broadcaster Joe Magrane will throw out the ceremonial first pitch at Tampa Bay Little League in Tampa at 9 a.m. on Saturday. ... Niemann will throw out the ceremonial first pitch at the Fossil Park Little League opener in St. Petersburg at 9 a.m. ET on Saturday. ... And starter Scott Kazmir, along with mascot Raymond, will throw out the ceremonial first pitches at Northeast Little League in St. Petersburg at 2 p.m. ET on Saturday. ... The Rays of Hope Grand Slam Gala is scheduled for Thursday, April 7 at Tropicana Field. The entire 2005 Rays team is expected to attend. For more information on tickets and sponsorship opportunities, call (727) 825-3471. ... Clearwater for Youth will put on a Don Zimmer tribute on Saturday at 6 p.m. ET at the Sheraton Sand Key Resort. Beside Zimmer, Rays expected to attend include general manager Chuck LaMar, Piniella, hitting coach Lee Elia and players McClung and Rocco Baldelli. For ticket information, call (727) 725-4004. Clearwater for Youth is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the welfare of young people in the Clearwater area with an emphasis on athletics.