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3/13/2014 5:45 P.M. ET

Maddon, Rays continue to support Upton

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- The Rays travel to Lake Buena Vista, Fla., to play the Braves on Friday, which should allow them to pay a visit to B.J. Upton, who was drafted by Tampa Bay with the second pick of the 2002 Draft before he played eight Major League seasons with the team. Upton left for Atlanta via free agency after the '12 season.

Rays manager Joe Maddon noted that Upton remains beloved in Tampa Bay's camp.

"I tried to get a message to him. I called or texted him, I can't remember what I did," Maddon said. "Larry Reynolds, his agent, and I talked about it during the winter time. I just wanted him to know we, in our own way, still support him.

"Listen, I don't forget what guys have done for us or me personally. The reason you're a Major League manager and you have any success is because you have good players. So when players contribute to your success and the security of your family, I always remember that."

Maddon called Upton a big part of the Rays' success -- as well as his own success -- and said he wished Upton nothing but the best this year after he struggled in his first season with the Braves.

"And I want to believe that he's going to be able to rebound and get back to where he had been, because he could definitely be a force for them," Maddon said.

Rays now have three candidates for fifth-starter spot

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- The competition for the fifth spot in the Rays' rotation got whittled down to three on Thursday, when Nathan Karns was optioned to Minor League camp.

Karns highlighted Thursday's moves that saw the right-hander joined by righty Kirby Yates, left-handers Jeff Beliveau and C.J. Riefenhauser, outfielder Kevin Kiermaier, shortstop Hak-Ju Lee and infielder Vince Belnome, who were all optioned to Minor League camp. Outfielder Mikie Mahtook was re-assigned to Minor League camp.

The Rays' spring roster now stands at 44, including right-hander Juan Carlos Oviedo, has yet to report due to visa issues.

Karns was acquired in a trade that sent catcher Jose Lobaton and outfielder Drew Vettleson to the Natonals.

Karns had a solid outing Wednesday in Dunedin, Fla., against the Blue Jays, when he allowed no runs on three hits, while walking one and striking out one in 3 1/3 innings. But that wasn't enough to keep him in the race, which now includes just three: Jake Odorizzi, Erik Bedard and Cesar Ramos. All three will pitch in split-squad games on Saturday.

"[Karns] threw really well yesterday," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "I repeat, I think he's got great makeup. He's a Major League pitcher. There's a couple of things we want him to work on."

Maddon pointed out that in recent team history, the Rays have sent pitchers such as Chris Archer and Alex Cobb back to Minor League camp, and ultimately those moves have worked.

"Get this guy down, get him in a regular rotation, get him stretched out properly, give him a menu to work on a couple of different things," Maddon said. "We feel very confident he's going to help us this year and possibly help us a lot.

"We like everything about him. We just thought this is the right time to get him back, using our recent history by how successful we've been by doing it that way."

Maddon complimented all of the pitchers optioned, noting how competitive the camp has been and how remarkable the overall talent level is. That prompted another compliment, this one to the front office for assembling the group.

Maddon also took a moment to tout the merits of Lee, who missed most of 2013 after tearing ligaments in his left knee.

"The thing that I really like about Hak-Ju right now, he's gotten bigger and stronger and he's really changed his hitting mechanics," Maddon said. "I can see why he was so successful in a brief period offensively last year. Much stronger base when he hits. A much stronger swing. A more forceful swing. ... The biggest difference I see with him is that."

Maddon added that Lee still seems to be a little restricted with his movements, which the manager attributed partially to the fact that Lee has to wear a brace on his left knee for an undetermined period.

Sands, Moore stand out with impressive hitting

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Jerry Sands and Jeremy Moore have used their bats to get noticed this spring.

"They happen to be hitting the ball really well right now," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "But beyond that, they grade out well in other areas, too."

Added hitting coach Derek Shelton: "They're both strong. And the ball comes off the bat hot, and I think we're seeing that."

Sands is an infielder/outfielder Tampa Bay claimed off waivers from Pittsburgh, and Moore is an outfielder signed as a Minor League free agent.

Sands, 26, helped the Rays win Wednesday afternoon's game against the Blue Jays with a solo home run in the top of the ninth, his third this spring. Entering Thursday's action, he led the Major Leagues with a 1.100 slugging percentage and he led the Grapefruit League with a 1.600 OPS.

In addition, Sands led the Grapefruit League with seven extra-base hits, and he is tied with four Cactus League players for the Major League lead.

"It's good to be swinging the bat well," Sands said. "I know it's just Spring Training, but you're always hoping to get noticed."

Shelton said Sands has been working on a "bunch of different things."

"I think he'd been trying to do different things, and we said, 'Go with what you feel is workable and we'll kind of adjust off that,'" Shelton said. "[Sands has] gotten with something he really likes, and I think we've seen the benefit of that."

Like Sands, Moore, 26, also has three home runs this spring, including a monster blast that cleared the center-field batter's eye Wednesday in Dunedin. Rays pitcher Nathan Karns observed of the blast: "I think he hit it to Toronto."

Moore said, "I actually didn't see where it went. When I hit it, I just kind of dropped my head and ran. I'm not going to admire it. I came in the dugout. You don't want to be the guy asking, 'Where did it go?' but everybody was kind of looking at me like, 'Wow.'"

Moore has six extra-base hits this spring, and he said he feels healthy after having problems with his hips the past two seasons.

"It's been fun to be here," Moore said. "The environment has been so relaxed and enjoyable. It's absolutely the most fun I've had in a couple of years. And, obviously, the healthiest I've been in a couple of years."

Shelton complimented Moore for doing well on the things he's been working on with Tampa Bay hitting coordinator Chad Mottola.

"They have hit it off, and they've worked every morning together on specific things," Shelton said. "And I think it's really translated. I think he's in a position where he's got something he can work on."

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.