ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays on Sunday received encouraging news on two injuries. INF/OF Ben Zobrist (back stiffness) and 1B Carlos Peña (sore right foot) might miss only a couple of more days.
But with their bench nearly bare, manager Joe Maddon acknowledged they could face a tough decision today — whether to place one of the two regulars on the disabled list or continue to play with just two extra position players. They could call up INF/OF Dan Johnson, who has 30 homers for Triple-A Durham, for example.
In any case, the Rays must make a move to clear room for RHP Jeremy Hellickson, who will make his big-league debut tonight against the Twins.
"You have to make up (your mind) whether you want to take the chance of putting them on (the DL) and them being ready in two or three days or you don't put them on and play short," Maddon said. "It's a real box you're in right there. It's not clear, and it's not an easy call."
Zobrist, out since Wednesday, said he feels "significantly better." And though he hadn't done any baseball activities, he hoped to return Tuesday at the earliest or Thursday at the latest. He added he doesn't believe he needs to go on the DL.
Maddon said an MRI exam on Peña's foot Saturday night showed inflammation. But Sunday morning, it felt less sore than Peña thought it would. Peña, who left Saturday's game in the seventh, won't play today.
The corresponding move for Hellickson's call-up from Triple A won't be simple.
Maddon said it will be just a spot start for Hellickson, designed to give the rest of the rotation an extra day of rest. So he'll likely get optioned back down afterward.
Because Hellickson's stay will be short and major-league rules dictate a player who gets optioned must stay in the minors for 10 days before returning, it will be an interesting decision on who's dropped.
STEPPING IN: Utilityman Sean Rodriguez made his first big-league start at first Sunday, the sixth position he has played this season. Rodriguez, who replaced Peña on Saturday, said he hadn't played there since his instructional league days but is comfortable enough.
Rodriguez, who also has played every outfield position, second and short, made a couple of nice plays Sunday, including scooping Robinson Cano's grounder down the line in the sixth. He said he sometimes looks at infield coach Tom Foley for instructions on where to play, and Maddon said it could be an adjustment on cutoffs and bunts.
"I'm really pleased and impressed with his performance," Maddon said.
"He made it look relatively easy, but it's not."
ROLE REVERSAL: RH reliever Chad Qualls, acquired Saturday, said it was quite a change going from last-place Arizona to getting thrown into the thick of a pennant race Sunday.
"It's a hard adjustment seeing the fans going crazy on every pitch," Qualls said. "I know I can help this team out."
Qualls, who induced Lance Berkman's inning-ending double play in the eighth, said he was pleased he could do what he has done best over his career, induce a ground ball with his two-seamer.
Said Maddon: "Hopefully, we'll put him in the right situations and he'll get his confidence going and you'll see the kind of pitcher we saw a couple of years ago.
Bouncing BACK: RHP Rafael Soriano was admittedly angry following Saturday's loss, when he gave up Cano's go-ahead homer in the ninth.
But he was glad he got another chance Sunday, picking up his 30th save: "I said (to Maddon), '(If) you need me today, I'll be ready.' "
Minor matter: Desmond Jennings hit a grand slam as Durham set a franchise record with its 11th straight win, 9-3 at Pawtucket.
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.