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Tampa Bay Rays' Ben Zobrist settling in nicely at second base

Ben Zobrist says he has grown more comfortable playing second base, his primary position since Akinori Iwamura’s injury.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

Ben Zobrist says he has grown more comfortable playing second base, his primary position since Akinori Iwamura’s injury.

Ben Zobrist remembered the time during 2008 spring training when he first began to juggle different gloves, grooming himself to be an invaluable utility player.

But now that Zobrist has had the opportunity to start consistently at second base (55 games), he has developed more comfort and confidence defensively, which combined with his offensive abilities has manager Joe Maddon saying the switch-hitter could become a valuable regular there.

"I'm definitely more comfortable than I was when I first got there," Zobrist said. "It almost feels like second nature. It's more instinctual doing some stuff out there than it was at first. At first, I really had to concentrate like, 'What am I going to do on this or that play or wherever.' And I'm still kind of learning."

Zobrist, who came to the big leagues as a shortstop, has six errors this season spanning 100 games and six positions. He has a fielding percentage of .988 since taking over at second more than two months ago for Akinori Iwamura, who is rehabbing from left knee surgery.

Iwamura could be back by September, and Maddon wasn't ready to speculate on what would happen at second base then or next season.

But thanks to Zobrist's career year offensively and improvements defensively, Maddon said he sees two spots the All-Star could play full time.

"Second base or an outfield position seem to be the two best spots to me," Maddon said. "It's not beyond any of my comprehension that he can be a really good everyday second baseman or a really good corner outfielder."

RIDING HIGH: Rookie RHP Jeff Niemann, who has four quality starts in his past five outings, said his confidence is as high as it has been since he starred at Rice University, and he is excited about the challenge of tonight's matchup with Felix Hernandez, one of the best pitchers in the American League.

"It's going to be a tight ball game," Niemann said. "Hopefully, I can keep us in there long enough. It's always fun knowing that you have to go out there and throw one of your better games."

WELCOME BACK: The Rays signed RHP Winston Abreu to a minor-league contract a little more than two months after trading him to the Indians for RHP John Meleon.

The reliever, 32, is scheduled to report to Triple-A Durham today. He was designated for assignment Aug. 1, having pitched three games for Cleveland (allowing six runs in 21/3 innings). He also was suspended three games for hitting Mariners 3B Jack Hannahan with a pitch July 27.

HIGH PRAISE: The American League's top two basestealers, Rays LF Carl Crawford and Red Sox CF Jacoby Ellsbury, being in St. Petersburg on Tuesday and Wednesday drew some buzz. Ellsbury said he has admired Crawford from afar.

"He's, obviously, fun to watch," Ellsbury said. "He's a guy that getting out of the box, you notice his speed. And what he does in the outfield, he covers a lot of ground. For an opposing player, he presents a lot of problems, puts a lot of stress on the defense and makes something out of nothing at times."

Tampa Bay Rays' Ben Zobrist settling in nicely at second base 08/07/09 [Last modified: Friday, August 7, 2009 7:24am]

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