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Big June earns Tampa Bay Rays' B.J. Upton a big honor

ARLINGTON, Texas — In the Rays' first 11 years, they didn't have anyone named player of the month.

In the first four months of this season, they have had two.

CF B.J. Upton is the latest. He was named American League Player of the Month for June, when he hit .324 with five homers, 22 RBIs and an AL-best 10 doubles. Evan Longoria won the award in April.

"I've been swinging the bat well lately, and I guess that's how you get (the award)," Upton said. "It feels good, but you can't dwell on it too long. Embrace it while you have the chance then move on, keep trying to get better."

The award could be considered a little validation for Upton, who struggled in the season's first two months in his new spot as leadoff hitter after rehabilitating his surgically repaired shoulder all spring.

Manager Joe Maddon said this should "help bolster his confidence a little bit."

"I think it's great," Maddon said. "With the way the season began for him … everybody was clamoring for his head. And I was a little disappointed in that only because everybody had just seen what he had done at the end of last season and there were extenuating circumstances as to why (he struggled)."

ROTATION SHUFFLE: To take advantage of off days Thursday and Monday, the Rays shuffled their rotation, skipping RHP Jeff Niemann and starting RHP Matt Garza in his place Sunday.

That gives RHP James Shields an extra start before the All-Star break. He'll go Tuesday against the Blue Jays, followed by Scott Kazmir and David Price. Niemann will be available in the bullpen this weekend and is slated to start July 11.

Niemann, who worked out of the bullpen in September, said he'll pick the other relievers' brains if he's used. Maddon said the Rays will try to get him an inning of work this weekend to keep him sharp.

"It's not something totally foreign," Niemann said. "But it'll take a little bit to get used to it. Shouldn't throw me off too much."

ALL-STAR TALK: Maddon said he made a lot of progress during Thursday's off day figuring out the roster for the AL All-Star team, which he'll manage in St. Louis on July 14.

Maddon figured out his guidelines after talking with Phyllis Merhige, Major League Baseball's senior vice president of club relations; researching online, and calling other managers for input. He met with his coaching staff Friday to go over a few things.

"We're really, really close to having it completely done right now," he said.

Maddon has to make his selections by today. The team will be announced Sunday.

SONNY update: RHP Andy Sonnanstine, optioned to Triple-A Durham on June 26 to make room for Kazmir, did well in his first start, giving up two runs in six innings in a win Thursday.

Sonnanstine appears to be taking losing his rotation spot in stride.

"My initial reaction was that I was disappointed," Sonnanstine said. "But … I'm more than willing to do whatever to get this organization winning. If that means me coming down here, that's what needs to happen."

Sonnanstine said he plans to use his time in the minors to sharpen his slider and work on throwing inside more effectively to right-handed hitters, who are hitting .370 against him this year.

Consistent PRICE: Price faces another team for the first time tonight but will continue being himself.

"And if it's throwing into somebody's strength … so be it," he said.

Maddon wants Price to continue to throw his fastball for strikes and work in his changeup more.

Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith @sptimes.com or (727) 893-8129.

Big June earns Tampa Bay Rays' B.J. Upton a big honor 07/03/09 [Last modified: Saturday, July 4, 2009 1:18am]
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