ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The progress of Ben Zobrist’s dislocated left thumb encourages him, and the second baseman has targeted a May 30 return when the Tampa Bay Rays begin a three-game series in Boston.
"They’re optimistic that I’ll be ready to come off the DL when the stint is done," Zobrist said Thursday. "So in Boston, hopefully, I’ll be ready to go."
Zobrist has been on the 15-day disabled list since May 15, a day after he sustained the injury with an awkward headfirst slide into second on a stolen-base attempt in the fifth inning during a victory over the Seattle Mariners at Safeco Field. He said his current treatment is concentrated on trying to reduce his thumb’s inflammation. He said the pain is minimal and that the range in his movement has improved in the past week.
Zobrist said he won’t travel on the Rays’ upcoming trip to Toronto from May 26-28. Instead, he’ll remain behind with hopes of receiving rehab starts either at High-A Charlotte or elsewhere.
Thursday, he fielded ground balls in the infield at Tropicana Field to test his thumb’s strength. Afterward, he gave a positive report.
"I was able to do more than I thought," he said.
Zobrist said he’ll try to play catch Friday, and he’s targeting appearances in rehab games early next week. A two-time All-Star, he has hit .260 with three home runs and nine RBI this season.
"Zo is very motivated," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "You know how he is. He’s going to work his butt off to get back."
Zobrist’s injury was considered minor when it happened. Still, his recovery’s pace has pleased him.
"They’re pretty optimistic that that can happen at this point," Zobrist said of returning for the series at Fenway Park. "I would be surprised if I’m not ready by then."
HELLICKSON THROWS LIVE BP
Jeremy Hellickson threw about 35 pitches in a successful live batting practice session Thursday in his continued recovery from arthroscopic surgery on his right elbow. It marked the first time the right-hander, who underwent the surgery in late January, had faced hitters since he threw one inning in Game 4 of the American League Division Series against the Red Sox in October.
"It went good, for the most part," Hellickson said. "Everything felt good. That’s the main thing. Just getting my work in, working on the fastball command and working on throwing strikes period. It felt good, and that’s all we really wanted to accomplish today."
Hellickson threw about 20-25 fastballs, five curveballs and "a couple" change-ups against an interesting collection of hitters: third baseman Evan Longoria, infielder Cole Figueroa and outfielder Matt Joyce. He plans to throw another live batting practice session Sunday. If all goes well, a simulated game could happen next week.
Hellickson spoke with more confidence about a target for his return than he did Wednesday. He said he’ll "definitely" be back before the All-Star break, which begins July 14. Still, he hopes a late June re-entry into the rotation is possible.
"I haven’t gone this long without facing a hitter my whole life," Hellickson said. "Honestly, I was kind of nervous when I woke up this morning."
MADDON WANTS LESS PRESSURE FOR LONGORIA
Maddon wants Longoria to have a new perspective: Think passenger, not driver.
Maddon placed Longoria in the second batting slot for the second consecutive game, a change from the three-time All-Star’s normal fourth spot. Entering Thursday, Longoria had gone hitless in three consecutive games, and he last hit a home run May 6.
Maddon repeated the lineup shakeup with the thought that Longoria would receive more at-bats higher in the order, and along the way, work out of the funk. Longoria entered Thursday hitting .205 in May and .251 for the season.
Longoria, by comparison, hit .322 last May.
"I want to keep Longo up there, just to try for him to get his try-to-get-on-base kind of an attitude as opposed to worrying about driving the whole bus right now," Maddon said. "Just be a passenger and see how that plays out. I don’t want him to carry any more burden with him. I don’t want him to think that he has to do anything more."
— Right-hander Chris Archer, who’s scheduled to start Friday in the series opener against the Red Sox at Tropicana Field, will make his first appearance since May 16 against the Los Angeles Angels at Angel Stadium. Because of the Rays’ off day Monday and right-hander Alex Cobb’s return to the rotation Thursday, he has enjoyed extra time between starts. "I like pitching every fifth day," Archer said. "But I’ll never be upset with getting a couple extra days’ rest, because down the stretch, I’m going to maybe want one."
— Maddon hinted that the Rays’ slow pace of play could be a reason for their recent sloppy defense. Tampa Bay committed two errors Wednesday, including one by second baseman Sean Rodriguez that scored two runs in a loss to the Oakland Athletics at Tropicana Field. The Rays have averaged three hours, 18 minutes in nine-inning games this season, the longest in the majors. "It has its moments," Maddon said. "They’re definitely interconnected. Listen, I’m all for pitchers working more quickly."
— Reliever Juan Carlos Oviedo could receive a larger workload soon. Maddon said Oviedo’s velocity has increased, and the Rays are close to a point where they can use him more regularly. Oviedo has a 1.98 ERA with 14 strikeouts in 13 2/3 innings this season. "By the season’s end," Maddon said, "he’s going to be quite a force here."
— The AL East basement is rare territory for the Rays. Since changing their name from the Devil Rays before the 2008 season, they’ve been last in the division after the season’s first month just once. It also occurred June 22-23, 2013, but they went on a 22-5 run and were in first place 33 days later.