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04/24/08 9:56 PM ET

Rotation in question with injury returns

With Kazmir, Garza on the mend, which pitchers will be pulled?

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- With the long-awaited debut of ace Scott Kazmir on May 3 or 4, manager Joe Maddon confirmed that the decision regarding the corresponding rotation bump will go right down to the wire.

Andy Sonnanstine, Jason Hammel and Edwin Jackson are all pitching for their respective futures, as one will be the odd-man out when reigning American League strikeout champion Kazmir returns to the rubber.

Although on paper the three pitchers couldn't be more different, they all have one glaring upside from last season: they have improved tremendously.

"It's unusual isn't it?" Maddon said. "I mean, you got guys you gave an opportunity to last year -- Sonny, Jackson, Hammel -- and we had our bumps, and now, all of a sudden they've become relatively consistent."

"This is a different group of guys," he added. "There's a different feel about them."

Indeed, part of the reason the Rays, at 10-11, are hovering around the .500 mark has been the ability of the aforementioned trio to keep the injury-ridden team afloat. Of course, a good bullpen doesn't hurt either. The Rays enter Thursday's game with a Major League-best 2.48 ERA from their 'pen, which Maddon said helps gives the starters more confidence in the front end of the game.

Although Matt Garza is expected to be reactivated from the disabled list and start on Friday, the skipper said that the right-hander is not in jeopardy of losing his rotation spot.

"We just got to get him back; he was fine before he left," Maddon said. "I'm not looking at it in those terms right now."

Before joining the DL with radial nerve irritation, Garza posted a 9.00 ERA in two games. To be fair, the right-hander has only tossed eight innings and posted solid numbers last season in Minnesota, where he was 5-7 with a 3.69 ERA.

So while it is clear that Kazmir and Garza will return to join James Shields for the top three starting roles, there appears to be no early leads for starters No. 4 and 5.

"We talk about it all the time, we're just going to wait," Maddon said. "That's one of those things, still, what, 10 days away, maybe, so it still works its way through [the rotation] at that point. But we will wait until the very end to make that decision."

Part of the problem has been how similar the three right-handers have fared in their initial four starts, each showcasing moments of both vulnerability and poise.

"You saw Jason last night [Wednesday] come out to a bumpy start and then settle in; you've seen Sonny get hit pretty good and then come back and pitch a shutout against a good offensive team," Maddon said. "And then Jackson got out to a pretty good start, even his starts that haven't been so great haven't been that bad either. So they've all gained from that experience last year.

"We try to separate them; it's hard to separate these guys right now, they've become closer together," he added.

Sonnanstine made his fifth start in Thursday's finale at Disney World, and is coming off a dazzling three-hit shutout vs. the White Sox. The right-hander entered Thursday 2-1 with a 5.55 ERA.

Jackson is slated to make his fifth start on Saturday vs. Boston and is 2-2 with a 4.63 ERA, and Hammel (2-1, 4.32 ERA) likely will throw on Tuesday, as Monday is an off-day.

Although having too many qualified starters is a problem countless clubs would love to have, Maddon is not taking any chances with the plethora of early-season injuries the squad has seen.

"When it comes down to decisions like this, you kind of feel like you're thick, you have to wait until the last moment, because things of a tendency to work their way out," he said. "Because all of a sudden you become thin if you really get ahead of yourself, so, for me, it's just kind of a nice problem to have today, let's see what [happens] next Thursday ... things do change quickly around here and in baseball in general."

Maddon was also unclear on when the Rays would make a corresponding roster move to make room for Garza on the 25-man roster. While Thursday's Disney game was technically home, Maddon said the club may choose to wait until they are back at Tropicana Field to make the call.

Brittany Ghiroli is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.