ST. PETERSBURG — In August, White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen predicted the Rays' success would prompt the Red Sox and Yankees to "spend a lot more money."
The Yankees did, their free agent shopping spree costing more than $400 million. But to the pundits who say the Rays will drop back behind their division rivals, Guillen says not so fast.
"(The Rays) still have a great ballclub," Guillen said. "A lot of people take it for granted. A lot of people think it's a one-year thing. I think the ballclub will be here for many years. The talent they have there … now they have the confidence. Now they know they can beat anybody."
Guillen should know. The Rays beat the White Sox in last year's AL Division Series and, entering Thursday's series opener at Tropicana Field, had defeated them in eight of their past 10 games. It's a far cry from the past when Guillen said, "You come in here and say, 'Wow, you know you have three out of four.' "
"You come to this building, be ready to play the game because they're good," Guillen said. "And they're good for a long time, too. Not just good for a season or 'That was a lucky season' or 'if the Boston Red Sox or New York Yankees and Toronto don't play well.' They're good, and people now notice that."
PEN NOTES: One of the bright spots during the bullpen's recent struggles has been RHP Joe Nelson, who has yet to give up a run in five innings.
Manager Joe Maddon said that Nelson, signed during the offseason, has looked more comfortable and cited his work against left-handed hitters (holding them to a .071 average with seven strikeouts and one walk). For his career, Nelson has held lefties to a .205 average.
"That's what makes him really valuable," Maddon said.
Nelson has been used in the long role as well as late-inning duty so far, and Maddon feels comfortable with him in several spots.
"He does provide a lot of what Grant (Balfour) did last year and what J.P. (Howell) did last year."
Howell, meanwhile, said his recent struggles (a blown save and a loss in his past two outings) are not due to health issues.
"The ball is up. It's a mechanical thing," he said. "It's a rhythm thing, and it's a timing thing. It can come (back) overnight. Sooner or later, it's going to get there."
shifting around: Ben Zobrist started at second base Thursday (with Akinori Iwamura getting a day off before pinch hitting in the ninth) and likely will get a start at shortstop during this series to spell Jason Bartlett, Maddon said. Zobrist's four previous starts this season came in the outfield.
EVAN'S RETURN: The Rays expect 3B Evan Longoria to return tonight after missing two games to be in California due to a death in his family. Willy Aybar started in Longoria's place.
IZZY UPDATE: Maddon said RHP Jason Isringhausen has been progressing well and is throwing from a longer distance as he builds arm strength and velocity in his fastball after offseason elbow surgery.
Isringhausen will have a two-inning stint in extended spring training before going to Double-A Montgomery on Monday. Maddon said Isringhausen will have a couple of outings there before going to Triple-A Durham, and they just want to see a few more miles per hour on his fastball.
"The body is in good order. He's feeling good," Maddon said. "The velocity is not quite where we want it to be yet."
PRICE CHECK: LHP David Price made his second start for Durham on Thursday. In five innings, he allowed one run (unearned) on four hits and struck out six. Maddon said the plan calls for Price to be limited to 75 pitches for his first six starts.
MISCELLANY: The Rays Baseball Foundation, the official charity of the Rays, will award grants to 29 area nonprofit organizations today.
Joe Smith can be reached at joe firstname.lastname@example.org