ST. PETERSBURG -- One player who could benefit from Tampa Bay's lineup shuffle on Sunday is Sean Rodriguez. If things work out the way manager Joe Maddon wants, the 25-year-old will get more than just a start out of Sunday's game.
Maddon said the most important factor in Rodriguez's development is his confidence. Rodriguez posted outstanding numbers at the plate during Spring Training, but he is off to a slow start in the regular season. Entering Sunday's game, he has played in 15 games and batted 7-for-38 with 15 strikeouts and only three walks. Maddon said the most important factor in Rodriguez's development is his confidence.
"It's just about confidence with him," Maddon said. "What this young man needs is confidence, and he could be a really good Major League player. I don't know when it's actually going to occur, but a lot of that I think we can help him with -- I'm talking about managers, coaching staff, some players around him."
Rodriguez batted .460 in Spring Training and led the team in hits (29), runs (20), doubles (six), home runs (six) and total bases (55) while recording a .500 on-base percentage and .873 slugging percentage.
The five-time Minor League All-Star said he has been trying too hard to replicate that success in the regular season, which has led to him feeling too much pressure at the plate.
"I think he just needs to learn how to relax to be successful here," Maddon said. "He's very talented, you saw in Spring Training. Of course that was a little over the top, but he's definitely very talented -- more towards that than what you're seeing right now offensively."
Rodriguez was looking to break out of his early-season slump against a tough opponent, as he faces Royals pitcher Zack Greinke, who entered Sunday's matchup with a 2.56 ERA. A few hits off the 2009 American League Cy Young winner would help give Rodriguez the boost in confidence he needs.
"If I feel good today off of him, I'll know I'm ready to start getting going," Rodriguez said.
After getting seven starts at second base this season, Rodriguez played left field Sunday for the first time. He played every outfield position during Spring Training, so he is taking the position switch in stride.
"That's what I'm here to do -- whatever it takes to help the team win," Rodriguez said.
Rays change lineup for getaway game
ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rays closed out their nine-game, 10-day homestand Sunday with a new-look lineup.
With left fielder Carl Crawford taking a pre-scheduled day off, Ben Zobrist moved into the second spot in the order, while Evan Longoria and Carlos Pena shifted up to third and fourth. Willy Aybar got the start at designated hitter, batting fifth in the order, followed by B.J. Upton, John Jaso, Reid Brignac and Sean Rodriguez.
Manager Joe Maddon said the changes had nothing to do with the team's back-to-back losses, and they were based either on matchups or a need to give some players an extra day of rest before Tampa Bay's off-day and nine-game trip to the west coast.
"I had had this planned for a while, to give [Crawford] the two days off. Just because we lost a couple games doesn't mean I'm going to go against my plan," Maddon said. "Willy needs some at-bats, and I thought this was a better matchup for Willy today than Pat [Burrell]."
Crawford, who was available in the dugout, is one of three Rays to have appeared in all of the team's 24 games this season, along with Longoria and Upton. His absence from the lineup put Zobrist in the two-hole for the first time this season. Zobrist, who batted all over the order last season, had hit third in all 23 of his appearances this season.
Perhaps ironically, the left fielder wasn't in the lineup on a day when the club provided Crawford-themed giveaways to fans. The first 10,000 14-and-under fans received Crawford action figures, and the first 10,000 fans were given Crawford posters.
Howell continues to rehab
ST. PETERSBURG -- While the rest of the Rays will get a day off Monday before making a long trip out west, J.P. Howell will be back in the bullpen, continuing to rehab his weak left shoulder.
The lefty reliever, who threw a 32-pitch bullpen session Friday, will get back to work Monday by upping his workload to 40 pitches.
"No off-days for us, the rehab boys," Howell said. "We have plenty of nights off. That's why it feels good to work."
Howell said he felt good after throwing Friday, but he only threw 25 "legit" pitches. He will continue increasing his number of throws over his next few workouts, and he will also add curveballs to the mix of fastballs and changeups he has been throwing. He is already scheduled for bullpens on Thursday and Sunday, May 9, as well, when he will throw at about 95 percent.
If he holds up after those outings, he can start looking at possible Minor League rehab assignments.
"I need to fatigue it and then see if my body can power through that at this point," Howell said. "If it's all good, then I'll wait and see what they want to do, but that's a pretty good sign if those all go well."
Manager Joe Maddon said he did not know the specifics of Howell's rehab assignment, but the pitcher would likely start at a lower level and work his way up -- possibly from the Rays' High A club in Port Charlotte, Fla., where the team reports for Spring Training.
"I'll be happy to see that place at that point," Howell said. "That's my goal -- to get there."
Getting back Howell, who pitched 66 2/3 innings last season to a 2.84 ERA and recorded seven wins and 17 saves, would be a boost for the Rays' bullpen, which currently only employs one left-hander in Randy Choate.
Joyce staying upbeat despite setbacks
ST. PETERSBURG -- As Matt Joyce's injured right elbow heals, his disposition improves along with it.
After reporting to Spring Training as a leading candidate for the starting right-field spot, Joyce has struggled with a series of injury-related setbacks. He has been dealing with soreness in his elbow since March and found out a month later he sprained his ulnar collateral ligament (UCL).
The injury forced him to spend three or four weeks with no activity, and the waiting game initially frustrated the 25-year-old outfielder. But now, as he is a week to a week and a half away from being able to throw and hit again -- and potentially less than three weeks away from playing again, Joyce is starting to feel a little more upbeat.
"I think I'm a lot more positive than I was because it's starting to feel a lot better, and I can do a lot more things and not feel anything," Joyce said. "It's definitely reassuring."
Joyce was unsure of exactly when he would get back to hitting, noting that his plan to get back to action is constantly changing, and he did not know the specifics of a potential rehab assignment.
"I'm sure there will be a rehab assignment," Joyce said. "To where, I'm not sure. Maybe Port Charlotte, maybe Durham. I'm sure they'll tell me when the time comes.
Joyce then joked: "I don't think they're going to throw me to the wolves there. You know, 'You haven't hit in a couple weeks? Nah, just go out there. You haven't hit in a month? Go face [Royals pitcher] Zack Greinke. He's only throwing 95 mph. You'll be fine.'"
Although he is able to loosen up a little and laugh about that possibility now, the experience of having to sit in the dugout has worn on the promising young outfielder, who batted .273 for Triple-A Durham in 2009, recording 35 doubles, 16 home runs, 65 RBIs, 67 walks and 14 stolen bases.
"It's the most frustrating thing in the world. It's one of those things where you try to stay sane and try not to go nuts watching every day," Joyce said. "The team's been playing well, so I just try to cheer them on.
"I've never been hurt this long. It's frustrating, but it's definitely a learning experience," Joyce said. "I'm just trying to stay out of the guys' way. I feel like I have no right place to be, but it's all right."
Adam Berry is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.