ST. PETERSBURG -- How did Kelly Johnson end up starting at third base Thursday night, his first Major League appearance at the hot corner?
It starts with Evan Longoria. Rays manager Joe Maddon wanted to give Tampa Bay's star third baseman a night off his feet on the artificial turf at Tropicana Field, so he slotted Longoria into the lineup at designated hitter. But Maddon also wanted to play Sam Fuld in the lineup and especially in left field, particularly with flyball pitcher Jeremy Hellickson getting the start against the Royals.
The Royals started right-hander Ervin Santana, so that meant Matt Joyce would need to be in the lineup, leaving Ben Zobrist at second base instead of right field. The only opening for the left-handed-hitting Johnson, then, was third base, where he did some work in Spring Training -- and quite a bit more before and during batting practice.
"[Third-base coach Tom Foley] thought he looked really good out there, and I'm looking forward to seeing him," Maddon said.
Johnson acknowledged after taking early grounders at third that he was not particularly comfortable there. Maddon noted that he could use Ryan Roberts as a late-game defensive replacement if necessary. But if Johnson put together a good performance at third, Maddon would not rule out using him there again.
"It gives us another option against a right-handed pitcher to get both those guys in the game," Maddon said. "And again, when we're pitching our flyball pitchers, it actually sets up pretty well."
After relieving bullpen, Odorizzi back to Minors
ST. PETERSBURG -- Jake Odorizzi got to pitch against his former team for the first time in the Rays' 10-1 loss Thursday night, but he knew he would be heading back to the Minors when he came off the mound.
Odorizzi threw 3 1/3 innings against the Royals and gave the Rays' overworked bullpen a rest after Jeremy Hellickson's short start. After the game, he was optioned back to Triple-A Durham as Tampa Bay reinstated Alex Cobb from the bereavement list.
"Cobb's coming back off of his absence, so somebody's got to go; I threw almost 65-70 pitches tonight, so it was pretty obvious," said Odorizzi, who threw 68 in relief. "I wasn't really surprised by it."
The Rays recalled Odorizzi on Tuesday after Cobb was placed on the bereavement list following the death of his grandmother. The right-hander said he felt good pitching in relief Thursday night, though he gave up two runs on four hits and two walks while striking out four.
He said his only objective Thursday was to finish out the game so Tampa Bay's bullpen would be in good shape for the rest of this four-game series against Kansas City, the club that traded him to Tampa Bay this offseason in the deal that sent James Shields to the Royals.
"It was pretty cool, definitely exciting," Odorizzi said. "I wasn't really worrying about it. I was just trying to get outs anywhere I could, just get through the game and let the guys get ready for tomorrow. It was a neat thing. Not too many people get to do that."
Only Kyle Farnsworth, Fernando Rodney and Odorizzi were available out of the bullpen Thursday night, but with Odorizzi picking up the rest of the game after Hellickson was knocked out, the Rays should have their entire relief corps rested and ready to go Friday against the Royals. Tampa Bay could have chosen to option Odorizzi and recall another reliever to fill Cobb's spot because Cobb will not be needed until Saturday, but manager Joe Maddon said that was not necessary.
"We'll have a lot of members back tomorrow," Maddon said. "They're all going to be good by tomorrow. They just needed a day. There's no shuffle going on."
Shields won't pitch vs. Rays, but his presence still felt
ST. PETERSBURG -- How big is James Shields' return to Tampa Bay? Big enough that a press conference was held to accommodate all of the interview requests. Big enough that the Rays had a scoreboard video tribute to Shields on their in-game schedule.
Shields, after all, was a big part of the Tampa Bay franchise for seven years, winning 87 games and helping them into three postseasons including the 2008 World Series. Then last winter he was traded along with fellow pitcher Wade Davis and infielder Elliot Johnson to the Royals for four prospects.
Shields had seen the Rays in Kansas City in two games (the third was snowed out) earlier this season, but this was his first time at Tropicana Field as a visiting player.
"It was a little weird," Shields said. "I got to see Doug in Security. Just seeing all the guys has been great. I was kind of wishing I was going to pitch here, but, unfortunately, in a four-game series I'm missing it here. But I've got a lot of good memories here, a lot of happy times and a lot of good friends."
Shields is the only member of the Royals' rotation who will not pitch in this series. But he faced the Rays at home April 30 in Kansas City and beat them.
Before batting practice Thursday, Shields went onto the field where his Rays buddy, left-hander David Price, was pitching in a simulated game as he comes back from a triceps strain.
"I did step in against Price but only in his warmup pitches," Shields said. "I didn't take the bat off my shoulder, though. I want to keep my .333 average on the year."
Then he wandered around the field, talking to ex-teammates.
"I played with a lot of those guys for so many years, and you become good friends with them," Shields said. "And to come back and actually face them here in the dome is definitely a little different. But we're all friends in baseball. In between the lines, in the game, we're enemies, but when it comes down to it, I've built a lot of good relationships."
His best memory from his 12 years in the organization?
"Going to the World Series," he said. "That and winning my first game in the playoffs in Rays history was probably my best memory here. From where we came back in '07 and to do what we did in 2008 was very special. The whole entire city came together, and we were doing the Mohawks (haircuts) and the whole deal. That was a fun time."
Shields noted that with the Royals he had encountered the same family-type atmosphere that he enjoyed with the Rays.
"It's not too different; Ned [Yost] has been great," Shields said. "He's about as good a player's manager as you can get. He's really been positive all year long, and I think that's one of the reasons why, as of late, we've had success, because in the month of May we really didn't do too well, and we kind of stuck to the process and were really grinding it out. The guys are great in the clubhouse, and it's very similar to what we had over here."
Shields was working in some time outside Tropicana Field as well.
"I'm in the process of selling my house; I got an offer on it," Shields said. "But I wanted to go back and see my neighborhood. I've got some friends out here. The people in this community treated me and my family with the utmost respect. We have a place in our heart for this community, the fan base here, and the foster children here. Me and my wife were really big into that, and we're actually going to see one of the foster families while we're here."
His personal record is just 2-6 despite a 2.79 ERA. But he has helped the Royals to first place in American League ERA, just as he helped Tampa Bay have the best ERA last year.
"Unfortunately I haven't gotten a lot of wins, but my team has won the last three games I've been out, and that's all that really matters to me," he said.
Even though Shields is not pitching in this series, has he given the other four starters any tips about pitching to his old teammates?
"Hey, we're not going to let that cat out of the bag, know what I'm saying? Ask me that after the series is over," he said.
Price surprises Maddon in simulated game
ST. PETERSBURG -- David Price threw a three-inning simulated game Thursday afternoon, and everybody came away impressed with his progress from the strained left triceps that put him on the disabled list.
"Velocity on the fastball was way up there, I thought," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "Slider, cutter, changeup, everything was outstanding. Delivery was good. I thought he looked ready to go."
Added Price: "I felt great. It was good to get back out on the mound and face hitters even though it was not a real game; it was my teammates. It's still good to get out there and see somebody standing in the box. It was a good day overall. I felt very strong."
Facing teammates Ryan Roberts, Sean Rodriguez and Sam Fuld, Price threw 54 pitches in three innings, taking time to sit down between innings as he would during a regular game.
Prior to facing his three teammates, Price had a surprise visitor step into the batter's box: James Shields.
The former Rays hurler, who now pitches for the Royals, watched a few go by without swinging while hamming it up with his good friend.
"I knew he was going to do something," Price said. "I was waiting for him to swing once. But he didn't catch me by surprise."
All kidding aside, Maddon was so impressed with his ace that he said the plans for Price's return would be accelerated.
"He's actually exceeding expectations a little bit," Maddon said. "I thought he could have pitched today in an actual game.
"He's accelerated; there's no question," he added. "I just have to sit down and talk with everybody before I give you guys bad information. I just saw a guy who was a lot further along than we thought."
Price is now on a work schedule like the one he would follow during the regular season, which means he will take off Friday, throw a bullpen Saturday, take two days off then pitch in a game Tuesday. Where he will pitch is not yet known, but Class A Charlotte plays in Port St. Lucie on Tuesday, Double-A Montgomery is off and Triple-A Durham plays at home.
Rays' timely hitting thrown off vs. Red Sox
ST. PETERSBURG -- Joe Maddon did not even need to hear the rest of the question after Wednesday night's 2-1 loss to the Red Sox. The Rays have hit .300 this year with runners in scoring position, the second-highest mark in the Majors behind the Cardinals' .339 mark. They have come up with big hits in those situations all year against everyone...
"Except this team right here," Maddon said of Boston. "We've not been very good with that. Why? I don't have a really good reason for that. We just have not."
Indeed, the Rays have hit a mere .141 (12-for-85) against the Red Sox with runners in scoring position, including .092 in their seven losses to Boston, arguably the difference between winning and losing several of the close games the American League East rivals have played.
"You've got to give credit to the other team," Rays designated hitter Luke Scott said. "They're a good baseball team. They're well-trained; they've got a good staff, well-managed and they go out there and they execute well, so you've got to give them credit.
"But at the same time, we can do better, starting with myself. I'll be the first one to admit that I've had opportunities and just haven't gotten the job done. It's been frustrating, but there's a lot of baseball left, still early in the year."
Against all other opponents, Tampa Bay is batting .330 with runners in scoring position. The club's .300 overall mark is a dramatic improvement from 2012 (.243) and 2011 (.224) and has played a huge part in the Rays' offensive improvement this season. And they believe they will pick it up in future games against the Red Sox, too, even if it has not happened so far.
"We've just got to get the guys in like we've been doing. But that stuff's all cyclical," Kelly Johnson said. "Our time will come, I hope, against them. As long as we keep doing it against other teams, it'll help, obviously."
• Tigers skipper Jim Leyland announced his coaching staff for the American League All-Star squad, and Rays head athletic trainer Ron Porterfield will be a part of his staff.
"That's outstanding; that's outstanding," Maddon said. "I love it. He is the All-Star trainer as far as I'm concerned. He is that every year. He should get voted to the All-Star team on an annual basis. There is nobody in this game better than him. ... He is the best at what he does."
• The Rays signed 13 more players selected in the 2013 June Draft, bringing their total to 19: Johnny Field (second base, fifth round); Austin Pruitt (right-handed pitcher, ninth round); Aaron Griffin (right-handed pitcher, 10th round); Patrick Blair (shortstop, 12th round); Ben Griset (left-handed pitcher, 13th round); Jaime Schultz (right-handed pitcher, 14th round); Julian Ridings (outfielder, 18th round); Andrew Hanse (right-handed pitcher, 22nd round), Rick Teasley (left-handed pitcher, 23rd round); Jeremy Hadley (outfielder, 24th round); Hunter Wood (right-handed pitcher, 29th round); Cory Jordan (right-handed pitcher, 35th round); and D.J. Slaton (right-handed pitcher, 37th round).
• Triple-A Durham infielder Vince Belnome and Double-A Montgomery left-hander Enny Romero were named Rays Minor League Player and Pitcher of the Month for May, respectively. Belnome hit .345 with 10 doubles and 15 RBIs in 25 games. Romero went 4-1 with a 1.34 ERA in six starts.