ST. PETERSBURG — 1B Carlos Pena showed flashes Monday of returning to his record-setting hitting form of a year ago.
Hitting catwalks, that is.
Pena struck a Trop catwalk a club-record five times last season. On Monday, Pena thought he had a second homer in as many days when his blast got stuck in the B-ring catwalk in centerfield during the third inning. But after he rounded the bases, it was ruled a ground-rule double.
"It's a tremendous sign," manager Joe Maddon said. "Because when he's hitting our roof he's swinging the bat well. We saw it all last year. If he's starting to get a ball stuck up in the catwalk … that is a good sign."
Rangers CF Josh Hamilton, playing his first game at the Trop, said he "lost it about three or four times before it ever got to the catwalk."
Quipped Rangers manager Ron Washington: "He got a double off of a ball that was an out; it helped his average."
Pena, who went 3-for-4, has indeed boosted his numbers in the first four games of the homestand, his on-base percentage from .306 to .346 and batting average from .209 to .238.
Pena's shot was just the second time a ball hit the B-ring and didn't come down, with the other on May 2, 1999, by Jose Canseco against the Tigers.
STEADY SONNY: RHP Andy Sonnanstine says he's a very visual person, known to be analytical in breaking down tape between starts. But looking at one of his most disappointing outings, seven runs in six innings vs. Oakland on Wednesday, the 25-year-old found only a few things he needed to do better today against the Rangers.
Sonnanstine was good. The Oakland hitters were, on that night, better.
"Even though the outcome wasn't even close to what I wanted, I felt good that day," he said. "I felt like my pitches were breaking, I was locating; not the best I've been, but I was still locating where I wanted it."
According to Maddon, that loss might have been the "best physical day" for Sonnanstine, who has a staff-leading six wins.
JOSH AT PEACE: Hamilton, the one-time top Tampa Bay prospect whose career was derailed by drugs, said he was happy to be at the Trop and see familiar faces, and happy that the Rays were doing well.
But the true moment of revelation about his remarkable comeback came Sunday night shortly after the team arrived and he went for a quiet walk around the downtown waterfront near the Renaissance Vinoy Hotel.
"I never really just did that when I was here before; I was always out doing other things," Hamilton said. "Feeling the warm breeze hit me, it was just kind of relaxing. It just kind of gave me a sense of peace of where I've been, where I've come and how I got through that. It was fun."
AYBAR UPDATE: Maddon said Willy Aybar, the opening-day third baseman, has been swinging the bat well during his rehab stints at Triple-A Durham. Aybar, who has missed 42 games with a left hamstring strain, is slated to play second base today.
Aybar has played first, second and third, but Maddon said there hasn't been a plan to try him at shortstop or in the outfield, making the decision on what to do with him when he's ready to return an intriguing one. Replacing utilityman Ben Zobrist could leave the team without a backup shortstop, replacing Gabe Gross would take away a defensive replacement in rightfield and replacing Jonny Gomes would eliminate a right-handed power hitter on a team that is predominantly left-handed.
"We'll tell you in a couple days," Maddon said. "It's still being decided."
MISCELLANY: RF Eric Hinske hit his ninth homer, the earliest in a season he has reached that mark. … Joel Guzman has hit homers in seven of his past nine starts for Durham.
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.