SARASOTA — Manager Joe Maddon was going on before Saturday's 3-1 win over the Reds about his determination to find playing time for backup INF Willy Aybar.
Then Aybar went out, on cue, and showed why, homering to right on a 3-and-2 slider from Bronson Arroyo in his first game since returning from the World Baseball Classic.
"Willy is a very valuable part of this team," Maddon said, "and that's why it's important for us to figure out how to get him in the lineup."
With solid starters at each infield position and no interest in trying Aybar in rightfield, Maddon wouldn't appear to have many options.
But he is talking about giving Aybar regular starts at first, second and third base, and also using the 26-year-old switch-hitter as the DH in place of Pat Burrell against some tough right-handers. Aybar last season hit .253 with 10 homers and 33 RBIs in 95 games.
"Just try to be creative," Maddon said. "When you put Willy in the lineup, you don't feel like you're losing anything."
Said Aybar: "When he gives me the chance, it's an opportunity."
SPECIAL K: LHP Scott Kazmir came out of a strong four-inning, 55-pitch outing feeling good, especially about making more use of the slide-step delivery with runners on base.
"I felt like when I used the slide step everything was so compact and everything was just the way I wanted it," Kazmir said. "It seemed like whenever I took the high leg kick I kind of got out of the rhythm a little bit, and I felt like my arm wasn't as high or ready as I wanted it to."
Maddon said he "really liked" what he saw with Kazmir using the shorter, slide-step delivery: "He had much better tempo and rhythm, and from our angle the ball was down consistently with good carry to it, a better slider. I thought he was excellent."
Kazmir threw about 10 sliders and said it felt good against left-handers but he is "cutting it off a little bit" against righties.
HELLO NIEMANN: Jeff Niemann continued his strong bid for the No. 5 starter's job, throwing two more scoreless innings to drop his ERA to 0.82.
Maddon said the biggest key for the 6-foot-9 right-hander is throwing his fastball on a downhill angle. "He's got uncanny command of his off-speed pitches," he said. "Fastball command down with a good angle makes the other pitches even better. If he's doing that, he can be very successful."
Niemann said he plans to just keep doing what he has been doing. "Every time you get a chance to go out there, you have a chance to prove something for yourself and put yourself in a better position," he said.
IZZY READY: RHP Jason Isringhausen is 36 and a 13-year big-leaguer with 293 career saves, but he'll be a bit excited making his exhibition debut today, the next step in his bid to make the team. "There's a little pressure going into it," Isringhausen said. "When you know you're on the team, it's a little monotonous. … It's a little different now. But it's a good different."
PERCY, JOYCE, TOO: Closer Troy Percival, recovering from back surgery, said there were "no problems" following his Thursday debut and he "feels fine" going into today's second outing. … OF Matt Joyce, recovering from right leg tendinitis, is scheduled for two DH at-bats Thursday and is excited about it: "I feel like I'm ready. I'm tired of sitting in the trainer's room."
GAME DETAILS: A Carl Crawford single and consecutive first-inning run-scoring doubles by Carlos Peña and Burrell got the Rays (8-7) off to a good start. … Maddon was most pleased with the defense, including SS Tim Beckham's running, diving catch for the final out.
MISCELLANY: Saturday's attendance of 6,949 was the Reds' largest of the spring. … Peña, recovering from abdominal surgery, will play again today, his first back-to-back starts of the spring. … Burrell said he wrote the copy that appeared in his thank you ad to the Philadelphia fans and he's happy with the response he has gotten. … The Rays are having a team "talent" show after today's game.