ST. PETERSBURG — Rays manager Joe Maddon has talked about taking an extended look at C Jose Lobaton, considering he could figure big in the team's plans for next season.
"Going into next year, he'd definitely be a candidate," Maddon said. "And that's why it's vital we see him right now."
But Maddon acknowledged Monday that Lobaton's playing time will come at the expense of veteran C Kelly Shoppach, who will be used primarily off the bench as the Rays go with a catching rotation of switch-hitting Lobaton and John Jaso.
Maddon said he talked with Shoppach about it and he handled it "great." "He understood," Maddon said. Shoppach declined to comment.
Shoppach, 31, has struggled offensively in his two years with the Rays and is hitting .175 this year, fourth lowest in the majors (minimum 200 plate appearances). He has handled the pitching staff well and leads the majors this season by throwing out 44.7 percent of attempted basestealers.
The Rays acquired him from the Indians in December 2009 and signed him to a two-year deal, hoping he could be an answer against left-handers.
But Maddon said it's more about wanting to see Lobaton than anything Shoppach did or didn't do. The Rays lost huge evaluation time when Lobaton, 26, sprained his left knee in his first Rays start July 18 and missed 43 games while on the disabled list.
The Rays have a $3.2 million option (or a $300,000 buyout) on Shoppach for next season. Maddon was asked if Lobaton's new role should be perceived as an indication of what the club plans to do with Shoppach.
"All you should really draw from it is the fact that we want to see more of Lobaton right now more than anything," Maddon said. "We need to evaluate him. We know what we have with Shopp pretty much. This thing, who knows, it could still switch. I'm talking about for right now the plan is to use those guys more, but as the month's in progress, that door's open to change, but for right now it's more about us seeing Lobaton and knowing what Shopp can do."
LINING UP: Maddon had planned on playing DH Johnny Damon on Monday, but the veteran's right leg was still sore from getting hit by a pitch in Sunday's game, so he was given the day off (though he was available to pinch-hit). Maddon said Damon is day to day. Ben Zobrist (neck) returned to the lineup after missing two games due to a nagging neck injury.
Seeking change: RHP Jeff Niemann will face the Rangers tonight for a second straight start, but he's hoping to be a different pitcher than what he showed in Arlington on Thursday, when he allowed five runs over five innings in his second loss in 13 starts since coming off the disabled list.
"It didn't go how we wanted it to last time," Niemann said. "I look forward to getting another crack at it."
Niemann said his fastball was off, and up, and he put himself in bad counts. He has been so good over the past two months, posting a 2.70 ERA, that Thursday might have been the anomaly.
"He was off with his mechanics that game," Maddon said. "So it's really not a good indicator of how well he can pitch against these guys."
MISCELLANY: CF B.J. Upton hit his 19th homer of the season and just his second to the opposite field, something the Rays had been used to seeing from him. "That's who he is; that's how he started out a couple years ago," Maddon said. "And if he can regain that feel, that'd be pretty darn good for him and for us." … 3B Evan Longoria hit his 25th homer and leads the AL with 14 since the All-Star break. "There's still a month left," he said. "So I'm going to push as hard as I can to get those production numbers up."