ST. PETERSBURG — Not surprisingly, Willy Aybar was the last position player to get into a game this season, starting at designated hitter Friday night against the Yankees.
But it also came as no surprise that Aybar delivered in his rare opportunity, hitting a two-run homer in the sixth inning of the Rays' 9-3 win. That's how Aybar has been the past two years, proving invaluable in how he always stays ready and almost always finds a way to come up with a big hit.
While regular DH Pat Burrell will be back in the lineup today, Aybar is scheduled to start at first base for Carlos Peña, who said Aybar deserves it.
"I went up to him and let him know, 'There's not many people who can do that,' " Peña said. "I let him know we appreciate what he does. That's not easy to do. To be able to do that off the bench, that's an incredible talent."
Aybar, 27, a switch-hitter who backs up at first, third and DH, set career highs in homers (12) and RBIs (41) last season despite making just 73 starts.
"I'm always working, hitting in the cage," Aybar said through an interpreter. "So I'm always mentally ready for any situation."
Meanwhile, Maddon isn't ready to give up on Burrell, who is batting .111 (1-for-9) in his first three games after struggling last season (.221 with 14 homers and 64 RBIs).
Maddon said Burrell, in the second year of a two-year, $16 million deal, has been working hard to get things straightened out and believes he's just missing his pitches.
"If a guy is not doing his work and having a hard time, then I have a hard time with the guy," Maddon said.
"Believe me. Nobody is trying harder than he is to get this straightened out. He's just fouling his pitch off right now. We've got to get him to put that pitch into play."
Maddon said he might find times throughout the season to play Aybar two days in a row, allowing him to get another chance to make an impact.
"That guy rakes," infielder Sean Rodriguez said of Aybar. "That guy can hit waking up out of bed.
"I'm like, 'Man, you're unreal.' "
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com