KISSIMMEE — With only a short Thursday tuneup in a minor-league game remaining before his opening day start, RHP James Shields treated Saturday's exhibition against the Astros like the real thing.
And he pitched like it.
"Full effort today," he said.
Shields threw 99 pitches over seven mostly solid innings in a 4-4 10-inning tie, marred only by back-to-back homers by Carlos Lee and Pedro Feliz during a three-pitch blip in the sixth. He struck out four and didn't walk any.
"This is the first time all spring training I thought the ball was flying out of my hand pretty good," Shields said. "It was a good one to go out on as far as going deep in the game and making quality pitches."
Manager Joe Maddon said he was most pleased with Shields' fastball command.
LINING UP: Maddon took his first look at what seems to be his preferred packaging for the middle of the batting order with Ben Zobrist third, Evan Longoria fourth and Carlos Peña fifth.
It worked well in the first inning when, with one on and one out, Zobrist walked and Longoria and Peña (an opposite-field double) delivered RBI hits.
"I kinda liked the way it looked," Maddon said.
Maddon hinted at two other possible tweaks, with B.J. Upton moving to sixth, ahead of Pat Burrell, and the catcher (Kelly Shoppach or Dioner Navarro) dropping to ninth because the No. 8 hitter (potentially Sean Rodriguez or Matt Joyce) could be "so quality, and you're looking at protecting No. 7, too."
MEDICAL MATTERS: INF Willy Aybar (left hamstring strain) improved enough to play first in a minor-league game Saturday, and the Rays now sound optimistic he will be ready for opening day. … RHP Dale Thayer was sore and bruised after taking a ball off his right shin in the eighth. He didn't go back out for the ninth as planned but said it won't slow his bid for the final bullpen spot: "It's not going to set me back, except in running maybe." … Joyce (right elbow strain) remains status quo in not being able to throw hard at a distance and 50-50 to be ready.
GAME DETAILS: After minor-league OF Ruben Contreras’ running catch preserved a ninth-inning tie, the Rays (16-7-1) took the lead when minor-league INF Cody Cipriano singled and later scored on a wild pitch. But Cipriano gave it back with a throwing error that allowed Cory Sullivan to reach, and he moved around on a pair of groundouts off Heath Rollins. … Burrell, playing left, made another nice running catch. … Maddon said with a 2½-hour bus ride home and only minor-leaguers left to play, there was no reason to play an 11th inning.
MISCELLANY: Minor-league C Nevin Ashley, ticketed for Double-A Montgomery, got another start and continues to impress Maddon: "I like the way he catches." … The players and staff get a break with a later report time this morning and an abbreviated pregame workout.