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Tampa Bay Rays might move Ben Zobrist into No. 3 hole with Evan Longoria hurt

Ben Zobrist slows down heading to third base as Mark Reynolds cheers Nick Markakis’ 
game-ending catch at the wall Saturday, which robbed Zobrist of a potential extra-base hit.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

Ben Zobrist slows down heading to third base as Mark Reynolds cheers Nick Markakis’ game-ending catch at the wall Saturday, which robbed Zobrist of a potential extra-base hit.

ST. PETERSBURG — When the Rays acquired DH Manny Ramirez and LF Johnny Damon in the offseason, manager Joe Maddon said it would allow him to put switch-hitting Ben Zobrist atop the lineup against right-handed pitchers.

But with 3B Evan Longoria (left oblique strain) out for at least three weeks, it leaves a considerable hole in the middle of the batting order. And with the way Zobrist has been swinging the bat, Maddon might continue to use him in Longoria's No. 3 spot.

Zobrist, who hit third Sunday, has a homer and a double in his first three games and was robbed of another extra-base hit Saturday night when Orioles RF Nick Markakis made a leaping catch at the wall to end the game.

Along with CF B.J. Upton — who is the only Ray to have a hit in each of the first three games — Zobrist has been one of the few offensive bright spots.

"I just feel like I'm in the right spot that I need to be," Zobrist said. "I'm able to see the ball and not think too much about my swing right now, which is great. I have a good approach up there and just feel confident. It's a good start."

Zobrist, who had 27 homers in his 2009 All-Star season, dropped last year to 10 homers and a .238 batting average. He has said his neck injury spurred some bad habits at the plate then. But Maddon said Zobrist is in a better place now.

"He's in a better setup, I think a better position with his hands to begin with," Maddon said. "And from that, I think we're seeing better at-bats."

STANDING TALL: RHP Jeff Niemann says each pitcher on the Rays staff prides himself on being a stopper, one who can end a losing streak.

And Tampa Bay, after an 0-3 start, could use a strong outing from Niemann tonight against the Angels.

Niemann, arguably the Rays' most consistent starter the past two seasons, is confident he'll look a lot different from what Anaheim saw of him late last year, when he was coming back from a shoulder strain. In Niemann's final two starts against the Angels, he gave up a combined 15 runs on 14 hits in 72/3 innings.

Niemann liked how he felt, and threw, during spring training, with all his pitches in the right place. And with his last outing being Wednesday in the spring finale, he's eager to get going.

"I'm looking forward to getting out there and getting my chance to play," Niemann said. "I'm going to try to turn it around real quick and get (us) back on the winning track."

REUNION TIME: While at Long Beach State, LHP Cesar Ramos formed an impressive rotation with Angels RHP Jered Weaver and Mariners RHP Jason Vargas. Ramos said today will be the first time he gets to watch Weaver in person in a big-league game.

The two have kept in touch and caught up a few times during the offseason in Southern California.

"He was unhittable in college," Ramos said. "You could go out there and expect eight, nine innings, 12 (strikeouts), two hits. If they were lucky, they'll get a run. He was Mr. Automatic.

"It's kind of crazy to see our whole rotation in the big leagues."

Tampa Bay Rays might move Ben Zobrist into No. 3 hole with Evan Longoria hurt 04/04/11 [Last modified: Monday, April 4, 2011 10:52pm]
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