Q&A with Tampa Bay Rays Relief Pitcher Mike Ekstrom

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Q&A with Tampa Bay Rays Relief Pitcher Mike Ekstrom
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After a rough start to the spring, Rays newcomer Mike Ekstrom settled in and pitched well enough to earn the team's final bullpen spot.

Manager Joe Maddon praised the control of his fastball, while a three-inning scoreless stint against Baltimore late in the spring schedule helped solidify his place on the roster.

This week I caught up with Ekstrom to talk about the spring and the upcoming season.

Last time we talked, you told us about the disappointment of leaving a great situation with the Padres, where you knew everyone and had grown together with the guys in that system, but were excited about this new opportunity with the Rays. Overall what was the transition like?

Ekstrom: Well you know it’s a little different the first week or so, just meeting new people trying to remember everyone’s names.

And you know, getting familiar with a brand new city. I’d never been to Florida, but everybody here’s been real cool, real friendly and it’s helped a lot.

There were some frustrating moments for you early in the spring, Talk about some of those struggles and what did it take to stick with it and keep fighting for that spot?

Ekstrom: Well yeah, the first game wasn’t exactly the first impression I wanted to make. But luckily they stuck with me and gave me another shot to prove what I could do.

After that I just relaxed and went out and got back to the basics. And luckily things started workin better.

What was the highlight of your spring? A hitter you faced or a specific outing?

Ekstrom: Well probably my last outing was a big part of what got me on the team. Basically it’d come down to me and another guy and I knew I had a three-inning start. If I did good I could maybe make the team, if I did bad I’d go to AAA for sure.

And I ended up having my best outing of the spring on the most important day. So it felt pretty good after that one.

What was it was like having to compete with teammates for the last spot?

Ekstrom: It’s something that’s there, but nobody really ever talks about it. Because I mean, you’re friends with all the guys and [the guys I’m competing with] are the guys I’m hanging out with.
I mean, yeah we’re competing against each other, but it’s not like we’re rooting against each other. It’s just part of the game.

I know the Rays are kind of a younger team, but was there anyone in that bullpen that maybe mentored you a bit or you were able to learn something from?

Ekstrom: I don’t know if anybody in particular, but most of the guys are pretty set in their roles. They’ve all been established, they’ve all been through it. I mean, most of them have been to the World Series.

They’re real helpful for all the young guys, not just me. Even the guys younger than me were helpful.

When did you find out you'd made the team and who gave you the news?

Ekstrom: We were here for our last exhibition game against the Mets at the Trop. The pitching coach just came over during BP and said "Congrats you’ve made the team." And that was pretty much that. Pretty exciting.

What do you think of the Rays chances this year in what most regard as the toughest division in baseball?

Ekstrom: From what I’ve seen, all we’ve done is win…I mean spring training was pretty impressive. We have a lot of young guys, lots of talent, and every guy knows how to go about their business. It’s definitely the most talented team I’ve been a part of. I mean, we’re all expecting to win this year, for sure.

So there’s a little more pressure, but the talent is there, the mindset’s there. I think everybody would be disappointed if we weren’t in the playoffs.

Now that you’re in the American League, are there any teams or hitters you’re looking forward to facing or stadiums you’d like to pitch in?

Ekstrom: It’ll be cool. Hopefully I’m up here long enough to go to all the stadiums and see stuff, all the baseball heritage. Definitely gonna be fun, going to some new places.

I mean the AL East, that’s where the best players are they say, so it’ll be fun to face the Red Sox and Yankees…pitch in Fenway and Yankee Stadium.

What’s the atmosphere like in that clubhouse, with the team expecting to contend and win now?

Ekstrom: Everybody here expects to win, which is a little different than last year (with San Diego). But I mean, time will tell if the team does or not. Most of these guys have been to the World Series and know what it takes to go into the playoffs and have success.

So that’s a little different. We were trying to learn how to do that in San Diego. These guys, most of them have been there. So it’s a different mindset for sure.

You’re someone that’s used to shuttling back and forth between the minors and the big leagues. When you’re unsure of your roster spot moving forward, how do you handle that mentally and does it ever affect the way you go about things?

Ekstrom: Well that’s kind of my role. I’m used to going up and down. I mean, once JP [Howell] comes back, I’ll be sent down. That’s what I’m thinking. There’s no point in really thinking or worrying about it.

All I can really control is how I pitch and what happens from there, and so thinking about where I’ll be in two weeks or where I’ll be in a month, it really doesn’t get you anywhere.

So I try not to think about that too much, and just worry about the next outing. I’m just happy to be here and help out, and stay as long as I can

Any goals or expectations you have for yourself this year?

Ekstrom: I’d say staying healthy is probably my number one goal, every year. Staying healthy, making all of my appearances. As far as like "set goals", strikeouts or walks, I don’t really get into that. Just being prepared to pitch every day...being able to pitch every day.
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