ST. PETERSBURG — SS Jason Bartlett said the Rays have a joke in the clubhouse that when Willy Aybar is in the lineup "everybody gets happy."
"We give him high-fives; he gets ready, he gets nervous, because he doesn't play much," Bartlett said. "But he goes out there and plays great."
Monday was another example. Aybar, filling in at DH for Pat Burrell partly because of the switch-hitter's recent success against Royals RHP Zack Greinke, hit homers from both sides of the plate, giving him a .282 average and 10 homers in 42 starts.
"I'm always in the cages hitting and I'm ready as if I were going to come in any day or every day," Aybar said through an interpreter.
But Aybar's teammates have been amazed at how the utility infielder can be so successful with often several days between at-bats. Aybar has reached safely in 34 of his past 38 starts.
"I don't think you guys understand how tough that is," Bartlett said. "To not play that much and to come in and do what he does, it's amazing. Guys spend their whole careers being a bench guy, they hit .200, but that's good. And Willy is hitting .280, .290, hitting home runs and playing every position, and he plays maybe once a week. What he's doing is amazing."
RF Gabe Kapler, who has experience as a platoon player, shared the sentiment.
"It's amazing to see him not play for a couple days and step into the box like he's been 4-for-4," Kapler said. "Every time, that's what it looks like."
KAZ ON TRACK: LHP Scott Kazmir, who had his second straight quality start, said he feels like a "different pitcher from the first half."
Manager Joe Maddon said the most encouraging thing from Kazmir's recent starts is simple: "Strikes, strikes, strikes. His greater ability to throw his fastball (for a strike) when he wants to is a dramatic difference for me."
Kazmir said he felt he had command of all his pitches Monday, when he threw a season-high 82 strikes in 114 pitches. "It's not like I'm going 2-0 and trying to work back and, next thing you know, it's 3-2 and I'm having to throw an 88 mile per hour fastball over the middle. It's me hitting my spots and mixing things up. … Once I get strike one, I feel like I'm in control of the at-bat."
Kazmir said the improved strike-throwing is a product of improved mechanics, which have enabled him to last six innings or more in six straight starts.
"I'm seeing the ball, seeing where I want to throw it and I'm finishing the pitch," he said. "That's just something I didn't have in the first half."
TAKE TWO?: It may be a two-game series in August, but the Rays aren't underestimating the importance of trying to make up ground on the Red Sox the next two days at the Trop.
It'll be the first meeting between the teams since the second week of May, and Tampa Bay trails Boston by five games for the wild-card spot.
"You don't want to say it's a momentum-shifter, but it'll definitely tie into the momentum for the long run," LHP J.P. Howell said. "The countdown is coming, so we have to take advantage of every game we have against them and the Yankees. We have a lot of winning to do."
CUTTING TIES: The Rays released RHP Wade Townsend, their first-round pick from 2005 (eighth overall). Townsend, 26, a former Rice star, has been hampered by injuries in his minor-league career, including shoulder surgery in the fall. Townsend was 0-1 with a 13.50 ERA in three games for the Gulf Coast League Rays this season.
MEDICAL MATTERS: Maddon said OF Fernando Perez, rehabbing from left wrist surgery, will hit in a simulated game in Port Charlotte on Wednesday, and RHP Chad Bradford (lower back tightness) is still a couple of weeks away.