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Rays’ Zack Littell pleased with strong, albeit imperfect, spring

LAKELAND — Zack Littell didn’t finish with a perfect spring, but it was still a good one.

Having worked 10 scoreless innings over his first three exhibition starts, Littell posted another zero in the first inning Sunday against Detroit before allowing a couple of hits to open the second, then a two-run. ground-rule double to Gio Urshela in a 3-2 loss.

“Almost,” Littell said. “Obviously, you don’t want to give up runs, but it’s good definitely to have a little bit of labor into it and go through a little bit of a high-stress inning where you get your pitch count up.”

Littell worked into the fourth, allowing three more hits (six total) while throwing 79 pitches, including 55 strikes. It completed a solid spring in his new starting role (1-0 record, 1.35 ERA) after he transitioned from the bullpen to the rotation last summer.

Now, Littell is the No. 3 starter, following Zach Eflin and Aaron Civale, for the opening-series rotation against Toronto.

Accustomed to coming to camp competing for a bullpen job, Littell said he at times this spring got too into working on stuff, some superfluous, and wanted to focus Sunday on competing.

“Aside from the execution, I thought it was a really good job of just going there trying to attack hitters,” he said. “Fell behind some. The execution wasn’t perfect, but now’s the time.”

Littell’s bosses also were pleased.

“He’s put together a really good spring,” manager Kevin Cash said. “(We’re) happy where he’s at. (He) got his pitch count where (pitching coach) Kyle (Snyder) wanted to. He’ll be good to go.”

Roster status

The Rays are waiting for word on whether any of the three players who exercised their assignment clauses on Saturday — pitchers Burch Smith and Naoyuki Uwasawa, and catcher Rob Brantly — get offered big-league jobs by other teams by Monday night. If so, the Rays have 48 hours to match or trade them for a token return.

Cash said there were no decisions yet on the final 26-man roster spots — backup catcher, left-handed-hitting reserve, fifth starter and last reliever — in advance of Thursday’s noon deadline.

One of the starting candidates, lefty Tyler Alexander, threw 89 pitches over six innings in a minor-league game Sunday in Port Charlotte. The other, Jacob Waguespack, starts Monday against the Phillies. Whichever doesn’t win the starting job may get the final bullpen spot over Kevin Kelly.

If the Rays don’t make any acquisitions, Alex Jackson is in line for the backup catching job, prospect Austin Shenton for the other bench spot.

Turf wars

With camp shifted to Tropicana Field, the Rays are doing workouts to get used to the new striped Shaw Sports turf and its coconut husk backfill.

Second baseman Brandon Lowe and first baseman Yandy Diaz took ground balls on Sunday morning, and Cash said the infielders and outfielders not going to Monday’s game will “do a ton of work” to get used to the ball speed and bounces.

“Brandon told (new head groundskeeper Mike Deubel) that it played out well,” Cash said. “It’s really cool how it looks. I imagine it’s going to play a little bit slower than maybe what it did last year just because it’s new.”

For further testing, most of the regulars will play in Tuesday’s 12:35 p.m. exhibition vs. Detroit. The Rays will hold another workout on Wednesday. Plus, they have several new players, such as Jose Caballero, Richie Palacios and Amed Rosario, who have little familiarity with the Trop in general.

“We’re using it to our advantage to try to get them as many reps in fly balls and ground balls,” Cash said.

Game report: Tigers 3, Rays 2

Relievers Chris Devenski and Phil Maton had solid one-inning outings for the Rays (10-16-2). … Rosario had two hits and a hard out. … Shortstop prospect Adrian Santana, a 2023 draft pick, doubled in the ninth. “He’s 18 years old, that’s pretty impressive,” Cash said. “And it was a double out of the box. That was like (former Ray Kevin Kiermaier).”

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