FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Henry Owens' odds of winning a spot in the Boston Red Sox starting rotation will increase exponentially if fellow lefty Eduardo Rodriguez begins the season on the disabled list with the dislocated right kneecap that has hampered him for the past 10 days.
But that isn't the outcome Owens prefers.
"We're all expecting Eddie to be ready for the season and give us a great year. That's what we're all looking forward to," Owens said Monday after tossing three scoreless innings against the Tampa Bay Rays. "We'll just see what happens over the next couple weeks. I think I'll just play that by ear."
In the meantime, Owens will concentrate on pitching the way he did against the Rays. Making his second spring training start, he faced 11 batters and got seven ground balls, including a rally-killing double play from Corey Dickerson in the third inning of an eventual 10-inning, 3-2 loss.
Owens is in the running for the No. 5 starter spot, although incumbent right-hander Joe Kelly has the inside track. If the swelling in Rodriguez's knee subsides in time for him to get ready to start the season and the rest of the rotation stays healthy, Owens is likely bound for Triple-A Pawtucket.
Rodriguez has been limited to long-tossing for the past six days and, according to manager John Farrell, experienced minor cramping in his calf before completing Monday's session. Considering the 23-year-old hasn't thrown off a mound since Feb. 27, he likely would need multiple bullpen sessions and perhaps even to face hitters in live batting practice before he's ready for games. But Farrell admitted Rodriguez probably has about a 10-day window to progress to the point of making his first spring training start if he's going to open the season on time.
Even in the minor leagues Owens' biggest issue has been inconsistent command. But after drilling Rays leadoff man Brandon Guyer to open the game, he pulled it together against a Rays lineup that featured regulars Dickerson, Evan Longoria, Logan Morrison, Logan Forsythe, Steve Pearce and Kevin Kiermaier.
Owens brushed off a leadoff single by Forsythe in the second inning by getting Pearce to roll into a double play. And he escaped a two-on, none-out jam in the third.
"He's somewhat unflappable in those spots, where he's not letting the inning speed up on him," Farrell said. "He doesn't try to pitch to avoid contact. Because he's able to stay controlled emotionally, he's executing to the bottom part of the strike zone and not letting that inning unravel. It was an improvement over five days ago. He was more readily able to make adjustments from pitch to pitch."
Said Owens: "Obviously, a pitcher aspires to go 1-2-3 every inning. In the spring, it's not a bad thing to get out of some jams. I made a couple pitches and a couple great plays behind me helped me out."
As much as anyone, though, Owens is helping his own cause to be the choice to fill in for Rodriguez.
Third degree: It was a rough defensive day for third baseman Pablo Sandoval.
Sandoval made two errors in the fourth inning to help the Rays score two unearned runs against reliever Noe Ramirez. On the first miscue Sandoval made a low throw that handcuffed Hanley Ramirez despite his attempt to backhand the ball, a technique the Red Sox want to see from the novice first baseman. Three batters later Sandoval was unable to handle a short hop.
"You know, we're working," said Sandoval, who is trying to improve his first-step quickness after enduring the worst defensive season of his career last year. "That’s one of the things we're looking for when we're here. We've been getting extra early ground balls out there."
Castillo, Bradley and Betts proved to be an athletic threesome down the stretch last season. Although Castillo and Bradley in particular remain unproven as big-league hitters, the Red Sox believe their defensive ability will allow them to help the club win games even if they slump at the plate.
"We're fortunate that not only do they have good range but they all throw the baseball well," Farrell said. "There's been less emphasis on the ability to throw the baseball in the outfield because you're looking for offense. You look at the athleticism and the ability to throw the baseball, of our three we're talking about here, it's impressive."
This and that: Betts hit a leadoff homer, his first of the spring, against Rays starter Matt Moore. ... In an attempt to score from second base on David Ortiz's single to right field in the fourth inning, Xander Bogaerts ran straight through third-base coach Brian Butterfield's stop sign. Bogaerts was safe, but only because Rays catcher Curt Casali dropped the throw.
On deck: Five days shy of the one-year anniversary of tearing the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, catcher Christian Vazquez will make his spring training debut Tuesday. Vazquez is expected to catch two innings as the Red Sox face the Orioles at 1:05 p.m. ET in Sarasota. Elias will be opposed by Orioles righty Miguel Gonzalez.