Jake Odorizzi’s journey has him prepped for role in Rays’ rotation

Jake Odorizzi showed during spring training that he is up to the task of rounding out the rotation for the Rays.

Gerald Herbert/AP

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — Jake Odorizzi is sleeping better these days. It’s hard to tell, because he has been the same, steady, easy-going Jake all along. It’s hard to faze him.

He’s human. There are highs, and there are lows. He feels anxiety, and he lives relief.

But mostly, he has been the same, constant, level-headed Jake since he joined the Tampa Bay Rays as part of the seven-player blockbuster trade in December 2012 that has become a pivot point for his franchise in so many ways. There are no frills to him.

These days, though, are different. These days, it’s good to be him. These days, the Rays’ fifth-starter competition is in the past. The Zzzzs are easier to capture, and so are the smiles.

"Sleeping better?" someone asked Odorizzi on Tuesday afternoon near his locker at Charlotte Sports Park.

"Yeah," he said with a chuckle, "a lot better."

Seventy-two hours in baseball can be an eternity. Three days is a series. That’s about 12 at-bats for a position player. That’s 60 percent of a starter’s prep work between appearances on a normal five-day rotation. That’s enough time to start a slump, snap one or extend a slide.

Seventy-two hours have done wonders for Odorizzi. On Saturday, he was named the fifth starter, a deserving title after the Rays’ top-rated prospect by Baseball America beat out left-handers Cesar Ramos and Erik Bedard for the job. On Tuesday, he spoke about how he was "really happy" with his five-inning, three-run, four-hit, five-strikeout start in a 4-2 loss to the Boston Red Sox.

He cracked a few grins. He was his soft-spoken-but-confident self. He appeared like a man, just 23 years old, who knows where he’s going, even if he understands the tough work in replacing right-hander Jeremy Hellickson for the next six to eight weeks has only begun.

"It was good to get out there and kind of (be) more relaxed this time than the past outings of spring," Odorizzi said. "I think that made a big difference in going out and (being) relaxed and feeling comfortable. I think that had a great deal to do with today, and I’m really happy with where today went."

This entire spring has become a platform for Odorizzi’s evolution. Once Hellickson underwent surgery on his right elbow Jan. 29, the young right-hander was the assumed next-option-available in manager Joe Maddon’s stable of pitching depth.

Still, nothing was guaranteed, even if a history was present.

Odorizzi went 0-1 with a 3.94 ERA in seven appearances (four starts) last season. But the Rays never saw the player they expected until he allowed just one earned run, six hits and struck out eight in 11 2/3 innings over three appearances in August and September. His hot streak also sizzled at Triple-A Durham, where he posted a near-spotless 0.47 ERA over 38 innings in his final six starts with the Bulls.

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Now, Odorizzi is a different pitcher. He has grown in the same way so many other young arms have done so within this franchise: left-hander David Price, right-hander Alex Cobb, left-hander Matt Moore and right-hander Chris Archer. He developed a new change/split pitch, a maturing beast in his repertoire, thanks to Cobb. He’s ready for another step.

The path has been blazed. Odorizzi’s footprints are the freshest.

"I thought Odorizzi was really good today," Maddon said Tuesday. "I thought he had some really good stuff. He had everything working, actually — some really good curveballs. The Cobb was very good. Fastball. Fastball velocity was outstanding. I thought he was really sharp."

The Rays have seen Odorizzi’s sharp edge throughout spring, the way he attacks hitters, the way he attacks his preparation work, the way he attacks growing within a game that more and more whispers, "This is his time."

Is it? That will be the great discovery of the weeks ahead, when spring training guesses become regular-season consequences, when best-laid plans can either gain focus or send Maddon and Andrew Friedman, the Rays’ executive vice president of baseball operations, scrambling for the nearest drawing board and a Plan B.

Odorizzi, for now, looks ready. The competition with Ramos and Bedard made him better. Since the title of "Rays’ fifth starter" was earned through no rout, the heightened performance to reach this point should benefit him.

"My body feels great," Odorizzi said. "My pitches felt good coming out today. My curveball is probably the best it has been in a very long time. It’s just a lot of encouraging things today to take into the season."

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And his mood?

"I’m happy with where I’m at right now," he continued. "A little bit wild at some points today, and I can work on that and limit some pitches a little bit. But I’m trying to shoot for seven innings every time I go out there."

Why not?

These days, it’s good to be him. But he knows no memories are made in March, only first impressions. He knows impact is created in April, May, June and beyond. If all goes well, the calendar will stretch deep into October.

There’s little reason to lose sleep over the coming hurdles in his chase. There will be times for that. For now, these weeks are for dreams, for possibility as innocent as Opening Day.

Odorizzi, prepped for the marathon ahead because of what he has left behind, should be well rested.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.