ST. PETERSBURG — 2B Akinori Iwamura has received rave reviews for his surprisingly smooth switch from third base.
But it was the leadoff man's recent emergence from an early hitting slump that caught manager Joe Maddon's attention Monday night.
Iwamura extended his team-leading hitting streak to 10 games with two hits against the Yankees, following back-to-back three-hit games against the Angels. In his streak, Iwamura is hitting .400 (18-for-45) with six multihit games and is now batting .258.
Maddon said Iwamura is finally starting to find his rhythm and timing at the plate, making up for a 1-for-15 slide in late April. Iwamura said a huge factor in the transformation was one of his rare homers, a two-run shot off Boston's Clay Buchholz on April 26 at Tropicana Field.
"I'm feeling really comfortable at the plate right now," Iwamura said through an interpreter. "I trust my hands, that if I keep swinging hard, I knew I'd be able to get my numbers up."
Iwamura flashed his glove as well, helping turn three double plays and racing to the rightfield foul line to snag a popup. Iwamura is one of two major-league second basemen who start regularly who have yet to commit an error (Tadahito Iguchi, Padres). "I'm building up my confidence level a lot," he said.
MVPS? The Rays' club-record start to the season likely surprised some people.
But the two players Maddon considers co-MVPs of the first six weeks might turn some heads.
"I'd give it to (LHP J.P Howell) and (SS Jason Bartlett), based on what they've done," Maddon said. "J.P. has really held the entire bullpen together, and Bartlett's really solidified our defense."
The picks make sense considering the Rays bullpen and defense are among the best in the majors, and Maddon considers "J.P and J.B." the cornerstones of each group. Howell (2-0, 2.88 ERA), a converted starter, has flourished in the long relief role, saving games — and others' arms — with successful three-inning stints.
Bartlett, acquired in the Delmon Young trade this offseason, had a two-run triple Monday that helped boost his average to .248. But his biggest value has come on defense, where he has combined with Iwamura to make for a much-improved middle infield.
REINFORCEMENTS: INF Ben Zobrist, the pins removed from his fractured left thumb, will be activated after today's game, with Andy Cannizaro designated for assignment. RHP Al Reyes could be activated, though it will be tougher to make room in the bullpen. RHP Scott Dohmann (2-0, 6.14) seems mostly likely to go, though he is out of options and would have to be designated for assignment, with the possibility he would be lost on waivers. The Rays have some depth at Triple A with Grant Balfour and Scott Munter.
With Cannizaro gone, the 40-man roster is at 38. The Rays will need a spot for Saturday, when RHP Juan Salas must be reinstated from the restricted list.
AYBAR WATCH: Maddon said INF Willy Aybar, nursing a left hamstring strain, is still 10 days to two weeks from a potential return. Aybar is slated to get work in at third base, first base and DH this week at extended spring, with assignments at second base next week.
MISCELLANY: OF Rocco Baldelli has resumed full workouts after missing about two weeks with an infection. … RHP Gary Glover pitched for the first time since coming off the 15-day DL (shoulder tendinitis), giving up one run and one hit in the eighth. … Yankees RHP Ian Kennedy will be called up to start Thursday against the Rays, manager Joe Girardi said.
Times staff writer Marc Topkin contributed to this report. Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@sptimes.