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Series Fifteen: Devil Rays at Marlins

The Marlins return home tonight, to kick-off a home stand of healthy proportions (10 games in 10 days). This comes on the heels of a six game road trip to the West, where the Marlins were fortunate to come home with two wins. Despite the sub-par performance on the road, the Fish return to South Florida only half a game back of the division leading Braves (although the Marlins do find themselves tied with the Nationals, which is somewhat amazing).

Interleague play starts this weekend across baseball. It's not just plain, old vanilla interleague either - this is rivalry weekend: Yankees - Mets, White Sox - Cubs, A's - Giants, and Los Angeles - Los Angeles. This, of course, can mean only one thing for the Marlins - that it's time to start the rekindle the annual grudge match against the hated Devil Rays. Actually, it just feels like a time for the Marlins to "get well."The Rays enter this weekend's set twelve games below .500 and twelve games back of the Orioles in the AL East.

Despite always talking about getting better, the Rays really haven't. If they could get mired in mediocrity, it would be a marked improvement. This is a club that's never finished higher than last place.

To some degree, that's not fair to say. They're a "small" market team that's forced to play in a division with the two biggest of the big boys (the Yankees and Red Sox) and their two other divisional foes, the Blue Jays and Orioles, aren't exactly pinching pennies either.

As always, the Rays are loaded with young talent. Carl Crawford and Aubrey Huff lead the crop of talented position players the Fish will see this weekend (Rocco Baldelli, who is as good as his first name is unique, is still on the shelf because of an offseason injury - but he has started participating in extended spring training). On the pitching side, the talent and hype are definitely there for youngsters - with Scott Kazmir living up to it and Dewon Brazelton not exactly doing the same (he's been sent down to AAA actually - the only issue there is that he has refused to report).

To talk about things, we sat down with the Rays' Raymond.

: Welcome to Fish Stripes, Raymond! The pitching matchups for this weekend are a little disappointing - Nomo vs. Leiter tonight, Hendrickson vs. Burnett tomrrow, and Fossum vs. Moehler on Sunday - don't you think?

: Yes, in a way they definitely are. For a rivalry of this magnitude, you'd like to see Scott Kazmir oppose Dontrelle Willis or Josh Beckett. We'll probably see more of those three guys in the coming years.

: Absolutely. Tell us about Kazmir, who you guys outright stole from the Mets last year.

: Yeah, that's true. Every day that I come in to work I'm a little nervous that we'll get charged with robbery for that deal.

Kazmir is a four pitch pitcher. Now, for a starter, that's not that rare. Most have three or four pitches. What makes Kazmir unique is that he has at least three "plus" - i.e. above average pitches - in his circle change, slider, and two seam fastball. His four seam fastball is probably the most average of his pitches, but it's still very good. He fields his position well and is a smart kid. At 21, he's pretty nearly a complete package. He's a competitive guy and doesn't back down from any hitter. His control is good, but not great - so far this year he's struck out 38 and walked 28. With experience, that ratio will start to improve.

: Sounds like a guy I'm glad we won't see. Tonight's starter is a guy I'll be glad to see, if only for what he represents historically. What can you tell us about Hideo Nomo?

: Well, it's not Nomo-mania anymore like it was with the Dodgers a decade or so ago. He was one of the first Japanese players to make it to the North American professional ranks, and he ushered in the era that's brought us Ichiro, Hideki Matsui, and many others.

Nomo isn't getting deep into games this year - barely averaging 5 innings in a start. What worries me most about him is that he's not good at holding on runners and he does not field his position well. I fear we'll see Juan Pierre lead off the game with a bunt and a stolen base.

What works in his favor is that he knows how to pitch. At this point in his career, at 36, he's pretty much the exact opposite of what Scott Kazmir represents. Nomo had a lot of talent back in the day, but that's fading now. His only above average major league pitch is his split-finger fastball. He varies the speed with that pitch - going slow when he's behind in the count and going hard to get a strikeout.

Between the split-finger and his funky delivery, he can still be effective. That said, he's definitely hittable.

I'd also expect to see the Marlins go after him aggressively. Hideo likes to work "ahead" in the count. To do that, he usually likes to get a four seam fastball over to start an at bat. If the Marlins sit on that tonight, they could drive the ball early and often.

: Let's switch gears and talk prospects. Or rather, a guy who may or may not still be a prospect. The Marlins have Jeff Allison in their system. Allison was a prep pitcher who was as highly regarded as just about any. Right after getting drafted by the Marlins though, he started to have some off-field problems. He seems to be on the road back now. We'll have to wait and see.

The Rays had/have a similar situation with a position player - Josh Hamilton. Actually, Hamilton is probably one of only a handful of guys in the past decade or so who were more highly regarded than Allison.

What can you tell us about Hamilton? Will we see him in Tampa anytime soon?

: Well, I doubt he'll be with the Rays anytime soon. There is definitely still hope though that he'll make it back into baseball and will be something similar to the player that many thought he would become.

Hamilton is suspended for this entire season though, for violations of baseball's substance abuse policy (as he was for all of 2004). Because of the suspension, there's really not much to say at this point. There's been speculation that Josh has turned things around - apparently he's married now and has found religion. Until he's back in pro ball though, there's really not much that I know and/or can say.

: Thanks, Raymond! Good luck this weekend.