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03/26/11 5:15 PM ET

Reliever Howell on track to return to bullpen

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- J.P. Howell feels like he's on track to return to the Rays' bullpen, as he just has to go through the final steps to complete his comeback from left-shoulder surgery.

Howell said he will go back to St. Petersburg with the team, which he sounded excited about.

"So I get to stay with them while we're home," Howell said. "When I start pitching in real games, I'll start out here and commute. Go back and forth, so I'll always be with the team, which is important to me."

Howell said he feels strong, and that he just needs to get into some games.

"I'm ready," Howell said. "... I've got to get in my 10 games. I've got to throw these bullpens. They pretty much want me to master everything. I feel like I'm pretty much there. I just have to follow the steps and the timeline. They say when you start feeling good you should wait a little bit. And that's what we're doing."

Howell said he has thrown all of his pitches.

"I'm full go," Howell said.

Howell figures to be pitching in Minor League games by mid-April and he's optimistic that he can be back in the Major Leagues by May 1.

Table-tennis stars visit Rays' clubhouse

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Table tennis was the order of the day for the Rays on Saturday morning at the Charlotte Sports Park.

Andy Sonnanstine joined the Sunrise Table Tennis League in St. Petersburg Beach during this past offseason, so the Rays right-hander invited some of the league's top players to play prior to Saturday's morning workout.

Sonnanstine said of his offseason experience that "it was humbling," since he got his paddle handed to him on a regular basis while competing in the league. He hoped to bring in the ringers Saturday and catch some of his teammates off guard.

Sonnanstine's intentions were well founded, but the execution of the prank didn't come off as planned. However, Elliot Johnson, Matt Joyce, David Price, B.J. Upton and Joe Maddon were able to get a feeling for what it was like to play an extremely talented tennis player. None of the group could do much against the different spins and placements that were sent at them from either of two tables set up in the middle of the batting cages.

"These guys are really good," Maddon said. "Really impressive. So awkward to play against."

Maddon likes the idea of his players playing table tennis due to the game's ability to sharpen hand-eye coordination. He said that the Angels used to have a table-tennis tournament during Spring Training and he's thinking about instituting such an event next spring.

Former Major Leaguer Beckert visits camp

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Englewood, Fla., resident and former Major Leaguer Glenn Beckert was dressed out with the Rays on Saturday morning.

Beckert, 70, played second base in the Major Leagues for 11 seasons, nine of them with the Cubs, and was a lifetime .283 hitter. The high-water mark of his career came in 1971 when he hit .342 and struck out just 24 times in 570 plate appearances.

Beckert said he likes to go to Rays games occasionally and he seemed to enjoy being around the team on Saturday. Maddon wanted Beckert to talk with Sean Rodriguez and Reid Brignac while he was there. In order to prep his players, Maddon made sure to include Beckert's statistics on each of their chairs in front of their lockers.

"Nice man," Maddon said of Beckert. "... I like the idea of having veteran retired players coming into our camp."

Maddon said he was jealous of other teams who have a large base of former players who can come in and offer their wisdom to current players.

Infielder Johnson cracks Opening Day roster

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Second baseman Elliot Johnson wore a big smile on his face after hearing that he had made the Opening Day roster for the Rays.

"I'm very happy, it's a lot of hard work, and I missed opportunities along the way, but this one came up and I felt like I grabbed a hold of it," Johnson said.

Johnson had his best season as a professional in 2010 when he hit .319 with 11 home runs, 56 RBIs and 30 stolen bases while playing mostly shortstop for Triple-A Durham. This will be Johnson's second chance at the Major Leagues as he was on the Opening Day roster in 2008, but he was only with the club for seven games before getting optioned back to Durham. So this year's shot appears to be much better than the initial one.

"It is different," Johnson said. "I mean '08 was the first time. You've got a lot of excitement. And this one is very exciting, sure. But that one, I really had no shot and then I just put together a good spring. This one is just a culmination of putting together a good season last year and then an opportunity coming up this season.

"Last time, the way I felt about it, once [Ben] Zobrist was healthy they were going to send me down. They sent me down a little sooner than that. They wanted me to get some at-bats. I still need to make the most of this opportunity, but it will probably be a longer one than the first one."

Johnson, 27, will give the Rays an added utility man -- he played center field on Saturday. He is hitting .303 this spring.

Rays assign seven players to Minors

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- The Rays' roster got a little lighter on Saturday afternoon as the team assigned the following players to Minor League camp:

First baseman Casey Kotchman; infielders Joe Inglett, Felipe Lopez and Ray Olmedo; first baseman/outfielder Chris Carter; outfielder Justin Ruggiano; and catchers Craig Albernaz and Jose Lobaton.

Saturday's transaction reduced the Rays' roster to 28 players.

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.