Tampa Bay Rays' Ben Zobrist continues acclimation process at first base

DUNEDIN — Ben Zobrist, making the first of several spring starts at first base, said Wednesday that he feels comfortable with most parts of the position.

Well, except one.

Zobrist, who played mostly the outfield and second base last season, said he's still struggling receiving pickoff throws from pitchers, something he said he will have to work on in the spring as the Rays could use him at first regularly against left-handed starters.

On Wednesday against the Blue Jays, Zobrist had trouble catching a low pickoff throw by LHP David Price, resulting in an error charged to Price. A similar thing happened in Game 2 of the AL Division Series against the Rangers, with a pickoff throw from RHP James Shields bouncing off Zobrist's glove.

"I've got to get time over there and get comfortable with it and see how our different starters, especially their arm angles and the ball coming out of their hands," said Zobrist, who has just 17 big-league games (11 starts) at first base. "I just can't pick it up real easy and am just uncomfortable right now. But that's just a matter of reps."

Manager Joe Maddon said it's more of a "mechanical issue," getting Zobrist in a more functional setup with a runner on first.

"But that's kind of easily fixed," Maddon said.

Maddon said Zobrist will start at first Friday against the Twins.

PRICE encouraged: Price gave up three runs with two walks over two innings in his second spring start, but Maddon was pleased with his velocity, and how he mixed in breaking balls.

Price said he was working on his changeup, and though he felt "gassed" after 41 pitches, he was encouraged overall.

"It was the best I've felt all spring for sure, armwise, bodywise," Price said.

MEDICAL MATTERS: INF Elliot Johnson (left quad tightness) and OF Sam Fuld (right elbow), both competing for roster spots, are dealing with minor injuries. Fuld said he will be back in a couple of days, with Johnson expecting to be out at least a week.

N.Y. STATE OF MIND: In what likely will be ongoing speculation as long as both franchises remain troubled, the New York Post reported Wednesday that Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg is interested in, even "strongly considering," buying the Mets.

However, the financially troubled Wilpon family has thus far only sought to sell a minority stake, and Sternberg told the Post, as he told the St. Petersburg Times last month, he had "no interest."

N.Y. STATE OF MIND II: Former Yankees pitching coach Dave Eiland, now a Rays special assistant, said there's "no hard feelings" toward his old team, which comes to Port Charlotte today. "They're just another team." … OF Johnny Damon also downplayed the reunion aspect with the team that let him go after 2009: "That's baseball; it's their fault I'm not there."

GAME DETAILS: The Rays gave up two runs in the ninth inning to lose 5-4 to the Jays, falling to 1-4 in the spring. RHP Wade Davis made his spring debut, looking good in a 1-2-3 fourth inning. DH Dan Johnson had a two-run double and a triple, with INF Felipe Lopez and Joe Inglett also adding run-scoring singles.

MINOR MATTERS: The Rays have signed RHP Edgar Gonzalez to a minor-league contract. Gonzalez, 28, will not have an invitation to big-league camp and is expected to compete for a rotation spot at Triple-A Durham. He has spent parts of seven seasons in the majors, mostly with Arizona and Oakland.

Times staff writer Marc Topkin contributed to this report. Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@sptimes.com.

Tampa Bay Rays' Ben Zobrist continues acclimation process at first base 03/02/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 2, 2011 9:45pm]

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