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03/11/07 7:39 PM ET

Notes: Hamilton bucking long odds

Rule 5 Draft selection having an outstanding spring

SARASOTA, Fla. -- So much for those long odds forecast for Josh Hamilton.

Despite a near four-year layoff from baseball, Hamilton has continued to make his bid to break camp with the Reds look better and better. The 25-year-old outfielder went 3-for-3 with three singles and an RBI in Sunday's 9-8 win over the Pirates.

Hamilton, who has started nine of the Reds' 11 exhibition games, is batting .538 (14-for-26) with one home run and four RBIs this spring.

"It looks like he's got a chance to be a pretty good player. How about that for an understatement?" Reds manager Jerry Narron deadpanned after Sunday's game.

A five-tool player when drafted first overall by the Devil Rays in the 1999 First-Year Player Draft, Hamilton had never reached the big leagues before injuries and drug use suspensions kept him out from 2003-06. Yet so far, he hasn't been overmatched by opposing pitchers and has remained comfortable in the batter's box. The pitching will likely get more challenging as spring wears on, however.

Hamilton is also taking what he's getting and hitting the ball to all fields. On his second hit Sunday, he stayed back on Pirates pitcher Marty McLeary's offering and sharply hit it through the hole on the left side.

"I talked about it with [hitting coach] Brook Jacoby today," Hamilton explained. "I told him the main thing when I came back was I've been calmer at the plate. It's not from seeing pitches the last four years, because I haven't seen any. I don't know if it has something to do with being older. I feel like I don't have to do as much out there.

"When you're younger, you want to hit the ball out of the park every time and your mechanics go. Now, I try to get a hit or hit it hard somewhere."

Taken in the Rule 5 Draft by the Cubs and dealt to the Reds in December, Hamilton must remain on Cincinnati's 25-man roster all season or be exposed to waivers. If he cleared, the Reds would have to offer him back to Tampa Bay for $25,000.

Several are competing with Hamilton for a reserve outfield spot, including Norris Hopper, Chris Denorfia and Bubba Crosby. The extra attention he's gotten and the fight to break into the Majors hasn't appeared to bog Hamilton down.

"I play and have fun," Hamilton said. "I come in every day like I need to fight for a starting spot and have fun. On top of that, there's no pressure. I've done it my whole life. I've never known anything but baseball. It's gratifying to me that I can calm it down and start becoming a professional at it like the other guys."

Milton pleased: In his third start of spring, Reds pitcher Eric Milton gave up four runs, three earned, and seven hits against Pittsburgh. The lefty retired his first five batters before getting into trouble in the second and third innings.

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Milton finished strong and got two outs in the fourth before leaving with 70 pitches thrown. Although he had arthroscopic elbow surgery in September, he's reported being pain-free for most of camp.

"It's good to get extended," Milton said. "For me, I've been feeling so much better every time out. Today [warming up] in the bullpen, everything was right there. In the first couple of innings, it was pretty sharp. If I can go out there, and just feel better and stronger each time out, it's a good sign."

Tight race: Barring the unexpected, lefty relievers Mike Stanton, Bill Bray and Rheal Cormier and right-handers David Weathers and Todd Coffey are locks for the Reds bullpen.

With five spots taken, that leaves several pitcher to fight over one, maybe two, spots remaining -- the number depending on if the Reds carry 11 or 12 pitchers.

Brian Meadows, Dustin Hermanson, Kerry Ligtenberg, Brad Salmon, Brian Shackelford are among the candidates. No one is making the decision very easy.

"The thing I really like this spring is guys are throwing strikes and pitching ahead and not beating themselves," Narron said before the game. "There aren't a lot of guys going out there and walking the first hitter."

In the eighth inning on Sunday, Salmon worked himself into a bases loaded jam and Shackelford let all three inherited runners score and Pittsburgh took an 8-6 lead. After the Reds came back in the bottom of the eighth, Meadows earned the save with a scoreless ninth inning.

Timing is everything: It was tough day for Shackelford. Besides giving up the three runs in the eighth, he contributed to two defensive mistakes on one play. After two Pirates scored on Nyjer Morgan's base hit, Hopper's throw sailed wide of home plate for an error. Shackelford's bad throw in an ensuing rundown between home and third base was also ruled an error, even though the runner appeared to go out of the base line.

"If Shack would have been backing up home like he was supposed to, it wouldn't have happened anyway," Narron said. "We worked on rundowns this morning."

Coming up: Fighting for the rotation's fifth spot, Matt Belisle will get a start against the Blue Jays at 1:05 p.m. ET Monday in Sarasota. Hermanson is slated to see action from the bullpen for the second time this spring. Gustavo Chacin is Toronto's scheduled starter.

Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.