Who will be Rays’ fifth starter until Tyler Glasnow returns?

PORT ST. LUCIE — Luis Patino’s fastball touched 97 miles per hour Sunday, which made the 23-year-old smile. Not because the Rays right-hander already is looking to light up the radar gun halfway through spring training, but because it shows he feels healthy.

“When he was at his best at the end of 2021, he was peppering in 97 (mph),” manager Kevin Cash said after watching Patino pitch against the Mets. “So if we can get there and kind of sit there, I think you’re talking about a different pitcher than what we saw last year at 90 to 93 (mph).”

With Tyler Glasnow out for the start of the season due to a strained oblique, the Rays are looking for pitchers who can step up and fill his spot in the rotation. Patino, Yonny Chirinos and Josh Fleming, if they can prove they are healthy and effective, have a shot at the spot.

It’s the elephant in the room for the three.

“I’d be lying if I said after my first outing I wasn’t thinking about, ‘Oh, shoot, what’s gonna happen in a month from now?’ That’s just the nature of the game,” Fleming said after throwing three scoreless innings Saturday against the Marlins.

“Anytime you have a bad outing or any outing, you’re always thinking about how those results are looked at by other people and stuff.”

Spring training is a time when teams typically throw the results out, but this year they have to mean something. The three pitchers have just over two weeks to separate themselves from each other.

“We try not to weigh too many results in spring training, but sometimes you’re forced to a little bit,” Cash said, “and I think that’s what we’re doing probably with that spot.”

Patino pitched 2⅔ scoreless innings Sunday, allowing a hit and a walk while striking out three. A big part of the return in the 2020 Blake Snell trade with the Padres, Patino was very happy to see his velocity numbers.

“I’ve never thrown 97 in spring,” he said. “So I know I feel good.”

That’s key with Patino, who was limited by oblique and shoulder injuries in 2022. He’s focused on being healthy and smart this spring: “I learned to work smart,” he said. “Still hard, but smarter.”

Fleming had to work out of trouble Saturday, putting on the first two batters before getting out of the jam. He finished his outing with two strikeouts. In four spring outings, he has struck out three and not walked a batter in 7-1/3 innings.

“Hopefully, he can find a way just to navigate through lineups that have a bunch of righties,” Cash said. “We know how talented he is against lefties, but teams don’t play lefties against him so you’ve got to find a way to kind of balance that and and get the righties out.”

Chirinos had a chance Saturday but struggled, allowing five runs on five hits and a walk in an inning. He struck out two. In three appearances, Chirinos has struck out five and walked three in four innings.

Still, the Rays like what they are seeing.

“Yonny’s been a bright spot of spring,” Cash said. “The velocity is there, the power stuff is there. It’s good to see him get through those struggles.”

The competition adds interest to the Rays’ camp, but in the end Cash knows that all three pitchers more than likely will contribute at the big-league level this season.

“We’ve got a lot of depth, a lot of guys that can certainly contribute,” he said. “In fairness, we’ve got a lot of guys that would probably be in a rotation on some other clubs, but it’s just not the way it’s drawn up this year.

“Fortunately for us, we’re pretty thick in the starting pitching department. All three of those guys and some other guys that you know, Taj (Bradley) and Cooper Criswell, those guys are all good pitchers. So it feels good to be able to have that amount of depth.”

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