ST. PETERSBURG — SS Jason Bartlett said after a workout Monday that he feels "close to 100 percent," and he could get activated from the disabled list as early as Thursday.
Bartlett, the cornerstone of the Rays' much-improved defense this season, has been on the DL since July 3 with a sprained right knee. But after Bartlett felt "a lot better than expected" Monday running the bases and sliding for the first time since the injury, manager Joe Maddon said the 28-year-old likely will return during the team's upcoming seven-game road trip, which begins Thursday in Kansas City.
"Watching him run, there was no hesitation," Maddon said. "I'd say he didn't run 100 percent; I'd say maybe 75-80 percent it looked like. And without any kind of difference in regard to what he looked like normally."
Bartlett got hurt sliding late into third base while trying to steal July 2 in a win over Boston. Bartlett, acquired in the offseason Delmon Young trade, said the toughest test in his rehab has been running the bases, while "everything else is great."
Bartlett said he's about "80 percent" now but thinks he could return to his everyday role when he's activated.
Maddon said the club hasn't decided whether "it's going to be wise to push him three or four days in a row." If that's the case, Evan Longoria could serve as a backup, or they could keep Ben Zobrist up, though that would force a tough decision on whom Bartlett will replace on the roster.
Bartlett, who started 77 of the first 84 games, has been tough to replace, as the Rays are 6-8 while he has been on the DL.
The hit show: Maddon was impressed Monday afternoon when "almost the entire team" participated in optional early batting practice. The Rays lineup, collectively, has struggled at times, including with runners in scoring position (entering Monday, they were .108 in the past 10 games).
"I know how much our guys care and how much they're into this whole entire moment," Maddon said. How did it work? The Rays racked up nine hits and were 3-for-10 with RISP.
Sonny time: RHP Andy Sonnanstine, who starts today for the first time since July 10, said the break benefited him, allowing him to feel like there's a "clean slate." Not that his first half was anything to forget, as the 25-year-old had a team-high 10 wins, and the Rays are 7-1 in his past eight starts. But after his last rough outing — giving up six runs (and three homers) — he welcomed the "breather."
"He felt kind of revived," Maddon said. "If he's feeling stronger and better and there's no hesitation, and overall a general feeling of good health, I think you're going to see better location. If you see better location with him, you're going to see a good performance."
Sonnanstine said he hopes to finish strong like he did last season, when he went 5-2 in his last nine starts after starting 1-9.
"It took me a little bit for that learning curve, what it takes to be successful at this level," he said. "Now that I know that, being educated and going into the second half I feel like I have a good game plan. As long as I don't stray from it, I can finish up this season strong and keep our eyes on that prize at the end."
Minor matters: Vero Beach RHP Matt Walker was suspended 50 games for violating baseball's drug policy after testing positive for amphetamines. Walker, 21, was a 10th-round pick in 2004. In 22 appearances this season, he's 4-7 with a 4.86 ERA.
Miscellany: The Rays' three stolen bases extended their major-league lead to 106. … CF B.J. Upton's two steals made him the fourth Ray with 30 in a season. … DH Cliff Floyd will read to kids at John F. Germany Public Library (900 N Ashley Drive, Tampa) at 11 a.m. today.