ST. PETERSBURG — Turns out Evan Longoria didn't have to wait long to start his major-league career after all.
The touted third-base prospect was on a flight to Tampa late Friday and will be in the lineup tonight in place of Willy Aybar, who was placed on the 15-day disabled list with a left hamstring strain. Aybar is the ninth Ray to go on the DL, and the fourth since opening day.
"I'm very excited, obviously," Longoria said before boarding.
The Rays made the official announcement after Friday's game, saying Aybar will be out at least two weeks and possibly more than a month. "It's two to we-don't-know-yet," executive VP Andrew Friedman said. "We have to see how he responds and comes back from the treatment and really getting some time off." Aybar has been bothered by the injury since spring but played through it.
Another on his way from Durham is RHP Jeff Niemann, set to make his big-league debut Sunday in place of injured RHP Matt Garza (radial nerve irritation). Niemann, a first-round pick in 2004, had a strong spring (2-0, 1.50) and two solid starts at Durham, going 1-1, 3.27.
The Rays made a somewhat controversial decision during spring training to send the 22-year-old Longoria down with the explanation that he needed more Triple-A seasoning. He was hitting only .200 at Durham but was 5-for-10 since an 0-for-15 start.
"Obviously we've been decimated by injuries a bit, and it's not necessarily the ideal way that we wanted to call him up," Friedman said. "But we're confident in his ability to adjust at the plate, and what he brings to us defensively is something that we felt was very important where we're going.''
Friedman made no promises that Longoria would stay. "We'll see what happens and reassess when Willy is ready to come back,'' he said. "It may be a short-term thing; it may be a long-term thing." The Rays will make room on the 40-man roster today.
Longoria did stay down long enough — 13 days, two more than necessary — that his eligibility for free agency, even if he doesn't return to the minors, should be delayed an extra year, until after the 2014 season.
KAZMIR PROGRESSES: Ace LHP Scott Kazmir (left elbow strain) is expected to take the next step in his rehab (a start in an extended spring game) after a second successful batting practice session Friday. Kazmir threw 42 pitches to several live batters, including OF Rocco Baldelli, and said he felt "great," throwing all his pitches "free and easy." Kazmir is expected to throw two innings on Tuesday in extended spring before moving on to a minor-league start, possibly at Class A Vero Beach. Although Kazmir said he could make subsequent starts at Double-A Montgomery and Durham, he's excited to be rid of the "boring" schedule of bullpens and BPs. "We're right where we want to be," he said.
SURPRISE, SURPRISE: Baldelli was an unexpected participant in Kazmir's BP session, facing his first live pitching since March 4, and lining the first pitch, a fastball, to left-center. Baldelli said it was just a spur-of-the-moment thing in which he asked to hit against Kazmir for fun. Said Kazmir: "Swing's still there."
MISCELLANY: The 15 hits matched the Rays' season high. … DH Cliff Floyd had successful surgery to repair a torn medial meniscus in his right knee. … Garza is slated to play catch today. … C Dioner Navarro (on the DL with cuts in his right hand) caught Kazmir but didn't throw. … RHP James Shields and OF Nathan Haynes will sign autographs today from 5:45-6:15. … Kurt Birkins (left elbow) threw an inning in an extended spring game and will throw again Monday.