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05/28/11 8:22 PM ET

Maddon tries Longoria in leadoff spot

ST. PETERSBURG -- Evan Longoria got a surprise Saturday morning when Joe Maddon told the slumping third baseman that he had been moved into the leadoff spot.

The manager approached Longoria while the slugger was playing the drums in the vicinity of the Rays' clubhouse.

"I walked in and said, 'Promise you won't think I'm crazy,'" Maddon said. "And he looked at me like, 'I know that you are, so I can't promise that.'"

Maddon went on to give Longoria the news of his new spot in the lineup.

"He was expecting me to tell him I wanted him to hit lower in the batting order, I'm sure," Maddon said. "I said, 'I'd like you to hit leadoff.' And he gave me that Longo smile. And I said, 'I really believe this can help.' Then I gave him my entire explanation of how I wanted him to approach it. We'll see where it takes us. It could be a good thing, because he's very capable of doing all the things a leadoff hitter can do, too."

Longoria said the message he got from Maddon was to "just have some fun with it."

"And make the game maybe a little less tiring for me at this point," Longoria said. "Because I'm pressing a lot and it's more mental than physical. I feel fine. Your mind is a big part of this game. You know, just have a little fun with it, I mean, hopefully I start hitting there and stay there, whatever, get comfortable and moving back to where he wants me to be."

Longoria, who normally hits in the Nos. 3 and 4 spots, hit .333 (12-for-26) with two home runs and eight RBIs in his first 10 games after returning from the disabled list on May 3. In the 12 games prior to Saturday's since that 10-game hot streak, he had hit .133 (6-for-45).

Longoria responded to the move in the batting order with a single in his first at-bat and a solo home run to center field in his next as part of a 2-for-4 day.

"To be honest with you, it's another opportunity to start hitting somewhere," Longoria said prior to Saturday's game. "I'm probably going to get one, maybe two more at-bats in the game. At this point that's kind of what I need, to find some way to get back into the swing of things. Whether it's hitting in the leadoff spot, or hitting wherever Joe pencils me in. It's just about getting confidence back at this point, finding a way to get it done. Eventually I'm going to hit. And hopefully it's sooner than later."

Maddon has been in the professional game since 1975 and noted that Longoria is hardly the first player he's tried to get out of a slump by hitting him in the leadoff spot.

"Through my years of doing this, more of it in the Minor Leagues than in the Major Leagues, I've run into different situations," Maddon said. "Really good players, really good hiters that were struggling a little bit, and before you did anything else, I always liked to push them up in the batting order and actually lead them off.

"I did it with Tim Salmon in the Minor Leagues. I did it with another player you've never heard of, his name was Kevin King, had great results at Double-A. These are big, strong guys that you normally wouldn't see in the leadoff spot. I explained to Longo I wanted him to go out there today, work good at-bats, get on base, use all of his baseball skills and help us win a ballgame. And really try to give him a different outlook. Hopefully he's going to have some fun with it and see where it takes him."

Niemann feels 'great' after bullpen session

ST. PETERSBURG -- After suffering a lower back injury on May 4, Jeff Niemann is working his way back to the mound.

The Tampa Bay right-hander threw a bullpen session prior to Friday's game against Cleveland and said he "felt great" when it was done. Niemann continued testing his back Saturday as he took ground balls before the team went out for batting practice.

Those are just the first steps in the rehab process for Niemann, however.

The 6-foot-9 pitcher will throw about 45 pitches in a simulated game before Monday's contest versus the Rangers. If that goes well, Maddon said Niemann will be sent to the Minors for rehab work.

"He may be able to [begin his rehab stint] sooner because the injury was a back and not an arm injury," Maddon said. "So he can be a little more aggressive with the rehab."

Before Niemann went down with the injury, he was struggling with a 5.74 ERA and a 1-4 record. Long reliever Andy Sonnanstine hasn't fared much better in Niemann's place, with a 6.07 ERA in three starts.

Maddon has nothing but praise for Lightning

ST. PETERSBURG -- Joe Maddon was busy watching David Price record a career-high 12 strikeouts on Friday, but it doesn't mean he wasn't wondering how the Lightning were faring in Game 7 of the National Hockey League's Eastern Conference final.

It turns out Tampa Bay failed to clinch a spot in the Stanley Cup finals with a 1-0 loss to the Boston Bruins. Still, Maddon reiterated how happy he was for the city and the Lightning.

"I hope everybody understands how great of a season that [the Lightning] had," Maddon said. "That's got to be the most gut-wrenching 1-0 situation like that, to lose after the season that they had. But they have nothing but to be proud of what they did. That's just a great building block for the future."

Maddon has been able to develop a friendship with Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Raheem Morris and Lightning coach Guy Boucher over time, and now that the season is over, Maddon hopes the Lightning pay the Rays a visit.

"We want [the Lightning] to come out here," he said. "A lot of them had expressed interest in taking some batting practice, and they are welcome to come out and do that."

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