ST. PETERSBURG — With Evan Longoria's return from the disabled list uncertain, 3B Willy Aybar's role continues to loom large.
The 25-year-old switch-hitter has filled in admirably, both offensively and defensively. The latter is an aspect of Aybar's game that is better than even manager Joe Maddon expected.
Thursday, Aybar flashed a bit of both in the Rays' 7-5 victory against the Yankees.
He capped a five-run second with a two-run single then added a solo homer in the fourth. In the third, Aybar made one of the game's biggest defensive plays, diving to his left to snag a sharp grounder by Derek Jeter before throwing him out.
In the 23 games Longoria has missed with a fractured right wrist, Aybar has hit .299 with 16 RBIs and the Rays have gone 16-7.
"Willy has done a great job," Longoria said. "He's been a true pro."
Aybar, the opening day third baseman, has enjoyed a career rejuvenation since being acquired in the offseason from Atlanta, where he missed the 2007 season because of injuries and personal matters (including a stint at a rehab facility for substance abuse).
Aybar, who called last year "a waste," has relished his everyday role since Longoria went on the DL on Aug. 11, saying the more consistent at-bats have been a big reason why he has raised his average to .250.
IN THE SWING: Longoria said he plans to take some swings with a broomstick again Saturday and if all goes well will try a bat. Longoria, who feels okay to play defensively, said he backed off swinging for several days after continuing to feel discomfort.
The Rays have said it would take at least 2-3 days from the time Longoria participates in his first live batting practice to get into the lineup.
POLE AXED: In a move that should eliminate confusion, the Rays will take down the short yellow foul pole "extensions" on the D-ring catwalk that are beyond the outfield fence.
minor matters: RHP Mitch Talbot lasted just two innings for Triple-A Durham in a 19-3 loss to Louisville on Thursday in Game 2 of the International League playoffs. Talbot gave up seven runs on nine hits. The best-of-five series is tied at 1, and RHP Jeff Niemann is scheduled to start for the Bulls tonight.
LESS IS MORE: Maddon said the Rays will continue to monitor CF B.J. Upton, who has a torn left labrum. Maddon said playing Upton won't cause further damage to the shoulder, and the Rays have allowed him to skip pregame batting practice to conserve his swings.
MISCELLANY: RHP Andy Sonnanstine, tonight's scheduled starter against the Blue Jays, flew to Toronto before Thursday's game. … Yankees OF Bobby Abreu was a late scratch with a jammed left wrist (sustained in Wednesday's ninth inning) and is day to day.
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.