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Tampa Bay Rays' Ben Zobrist working to get comfortable at first base, just in case

PORT CHARLOTTE — First base isn't versatile Ben Zobrist's first choice for a position. But he reported to camp Saturday saying he is willing to make it his first priority this spring to get more comfortable in case he's used there.

"I definitely need that experience," Zobrist said. "At the end of the year when I played a little bit more first base, I felt a little bit uncomfortable because I didn't have that."

Zobrist, 29, will be plenty busy. The Rays plan to return him to more of a super-utility role, playing all over the field as opposed to primarily second base and rightfield as he did last season. And he hopes to recapture his 2009 team MVP batting form after dropping from .297 with 27 homers, 91 RBIs and a .948 OPS to .238/10/75/.699.

Manager Joe Maddon said he didn't know yet how much he'd use Zobrist at first, and that even though as a switch-hitter he seems the likely choice against left-handed pitchers, starter Dan Johnson also can hit lefties well.

"I do want him to be comfortable there, more than he was last year," Maddon said.

Zobrist is getting ready. After using Johnson and Willy Aybar's gloves for the 14 games he played at first in 2010, he ordered his own at the end of the season and is making sure it's broken in.

HELLICKSON UPDATE: RHP Jeremy Hellickson remained sidelined due to a mild right hamstring strain sustained Thursday, but Maddon said the reports from head athletic trainer Ron Porterfield are encouraging. "Ronnie said he came in better and he liked the way he was moving around," Maddon said.

Hellickson is expected to take the spot opened in the rotation by the Matt Garza trade, and Maddon said missing a short amount of time now shouldn't affect his readiness to start the season. Plus, with an off day in the first week, the Rays wouldn't need a fifth starter until April 10, so there would be some extra prep time if needed.

MAKING HIS CASE: Equally versatile INF/SS Elliot Johnson also reported, saying he considers this spring the opportunity to make the team he has been waiting for.

"This is it," he said.

Johnson, 26, is confident after hitting .319 with 11 homers, 56 RBIs and 30 steals and playing solid shortstop during a breakout season at Triple-A Durham that got him put back on the 40-man roster after being dropped last spring.

"I don't know if you can find somebody that played shortstop in the minor leagues that is major-league ready that has the stats that I put up last year," he said. "I come in with a lot of confidence knowing that I proved the consistency question over the span of 450 at-bats."

Plus, he cut down on strikeouts, walked more and played good defense. "I feel like I did what was asked," he said. "Now I'm just hoping for an opportunity to prove that I can do the same thing at the big-league level."

MISCELLANY: Nonroster INFs Ray Olmedo and Daniel Mayora and just-signed Joe Inglett are the only position players who haven't reported in advance of Monday's first full-squad workout. … RHP Juan Cruz remains delayed by visa issues. … Maddon said he was impressed by SS prospect Tim Beckham's attitude and improved physique: "He just looks different."

Tampa Bay Rays' Ben Zobrist working to get comfortable at first base, just in case 02/19/11 [Last modified: Saturday, February 19, 2011 7:48pm]

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