ST. PETERSBURG — Rays manager Joe Maddon started with modest praise Tuesday about OF Sam Fuld, choosing the word "fearless" to best describe his style of defense and saying he reminded him most of former Angels and Cardinals star Jim Edmonds.
But when asked how Fuld's outfield play compared to that of former Rays All-Star, and 2010 Gold Glove winner, Carl Crawford, Maddon laid it on heavy.
"There's no dropoff," he said. "There's no dropoff. To say that right now, I would just be appeasing everybody. That's not true.
"Sam's playing that level of defense right now. He throws the ball better. And right now, all the different things he's doing defensively, I can't tell you that Carl's better. I can not."
Crawford, who signed a seven-year, $142 million deal with the Red Sox and is off to a brutal start, hitting .133, was considered among the game's best leftfielders for the past half-dozen years.
Fuld, acquired from the Cubs in the Matt Garza trade, is playing regularly for the first time and has a .368 average and seven steals in addition to his dazzling defense. In parts of three seasons in Chicago, he started 40 games and played more than two consecutive complete games once.
"Sometimes somebody just needs an opportunity …" Maddon said. "He's Sammy-on-the-spot. He just knows where to be. He positions himself well. He listens. He gets really good jumps on the ball. The closest thing I've seen in the past would be Edmonds. Edmonds was that kind of an outfielder: Sam's fast but he's not the fastest guy; Jimmy was fast but not the fastest guy, ran great routes. When the ball's hit, they're moving. That's always a sign of a good jump. He runs direct routes to the ball, none of these circuitous methods getting to the fly ball. It's textbook. And it's really fun to watch."
HANDY MEN: DH/LF Johnny Damon regained some movement in the left ring finger that was bruised in a Sunday bunt attempt and was feeling better after Tuesday's game, making a return tonight possible. … 1B Dan Johnson's left wrist, struck by a pitch Sunday, improved enough for him to take batting practice, but Maddon felt he was being "slightly tentative" and held him back another day.
J.P. DUTY: LHP J.P. Howell not only threw well in his final batting practice session before heading out on a minor-league rehab assignment, but he made the hitters look bad.
"I saw better. I saw 8-12 inches more fastball. I saw better life. I saw better command. I saw really good break on the breaking stuff," Maddon said. "The guys weren't swinging because he was freezing them, he was locking them up. The ball was moving that well."
Howell, coming back from May 2010 shoulder surgery, said he improves each outing, and Tuesday he was most pleased with his curveball. Also, he said, "a way more professional approach in terms of my mechanics that really creates a lot of deception for me."
Howell will make 10 appearances, starting at extended spring in Port Charlotte and working up to Triple-A Durham eyeing a mid May return.
LONGO MR. MAY? 3B Evan Longoria continues to progress in his recovery from a left oblique strain, but his goal of an April 29 return may have been too optimistic. Maddon said Longoria, out since April 2, could start a rehab assignment as hoped April 25 but would need to log about 20 at-bats over five to seven games, and with some rest, pushing his return into early May. "I love the fact that he wants to get back," Maddon said. "We want to make sure that he's well. You don't want to just go 0-60 and have him start swinging with no days off."
MISCELLANY: Home-plate umpire Vic Carapazza, a temporary fill-in from Triple A, is a Countryside High graduate and the son-in-law of longtime ump Richie Garcia. … The Rays scored a first-inning run for the second straight game after doing so once in their first 15.