PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Happy thoughts do not enter the arena when Mitch Talbot remembers the 2008 season.

"Honestly, it's haunted me the whole offseason," Talbot said.

The 24-year-old right-hander spent most of the year at Triple-A Durham, where he earned Pitcher of the Year honors and posted his second consecutive 13-9 season, tying the Bulls' season win record. And on top of that, Talbot received two callups to the Rays. It is about the latter that dampens Talbot's disposition.

Talbot got his first call on July 2 with the Red Sox in town, but before the right-hander could get into a game he was optioned back the next day. That one stung, but the haunting part came from the next callup.

Talbot made his Major League debut Sept. 15 against the Red Sox. In three innings of relief, he allowed four runs on five hits and three walks, striking out two in a 13-5 Rays loss. He finished with a 0-0 record an 11.17 ERA in three games.

Though he showed glimpses of the good stuff that characterized his resume, Talbot's first experience in the show left him empty.

"I saw both sides of the spectrum," Talbot said. "It was good to get to the Major Leagues, but at the same time, I knew I didn't have my good stuff with me.

"I was walking a lot of guys. I just couldn't quite find it. I don't know if the game sped up on me a little bit, or what was going on. But I know I can be there, and I know I can be successful there."

Talbot walked just 35 batters in 161 innings at Durham and went 6-2 with a 2.05 ERA in his final 10 starts. In stark contrast, he walked 11 in 9 2/3 innings with the Rays.

"I just couldn't throw a strike," Talbot said. "I really couldn't tell you why. I tried just about everything while I was up. I think my stuff was more than there as far as sharpness on my breaking pitches. I just wasn't throwing them for strikes.

"When you don't throw strikes, they don't have to swing. Eventually, you're going to have to throw a fat one -- and they're going to hit it. It was disappointing for me, but it will make me look forward to next time and change things a little bit."

The Rays acquired Talbot, along with Ben Zobrist, from the Astros on July 12, 2006, in exchange for Aubrey Huff and cash. All along, Talbot has received superlative reviews for having electric stuff. He has five pitches, including a fastball, cutter, curve, slider and changeup.

"The first thing you see with Mitch -- the first thing anybody sees with Mitch -- is the stuff across the board," Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey said. "I oftentimes compare him to [James] Shields, and if you graded them out, it might even be better stuff across the board."

Of course, Shields currently has a better collection of intangibles in his toolbox. In the past, Talbot has struggled with his composure, but said he's been able to harness that the last couple of years.

"I don't know if Mitch has a temper, whether it's more controlling his emotions, but I think that's the difference, and being comfortable," Hickey said. "It's tough being comfortable when you come to the big leagues for the first time and you're facing Boston or whoever, and you're not doing very well. It's tough to say you were comfortable out there."

In short, Talbot's cup of coffee with the Rays in 2008 was not a true reflection of his abilities.

"He's always been a guy who performed," Hickey said. "For two years now, he's probably had what he's considered subpar years in Triple-A, but he's made 57 consecutive Triple-A starts with double-digit wins and good numbers across the board."

Talbot finds himself as the long shot candidate to win the No. 5 spot in the rotation, behind David Price, Jason Hammel and Jeff Niemann. Helping to stack the odds against Talbot is the fact Hammel and Niemann are both out of options and he is not.

Even if Talbot doesn't make the team this spring, Rays fans can look at him and marvel at how deep the organization is, barring injuries.

"Almost every year in the history of this club prior to 2008, he probably would have made the team two years ago," Hickey said. "So I still have real high hopes for Mitch, I think he's going to be a productive guy. I really expect big things from Mitch."

Talbot wants to move on from 2008.

"It's really rough on you to go out there and know you're a lot better than what you showed," Talbot said. "But I'll look forward to the next time I get a chance."