ST. PETERSBURG -- There were plenty of concerns for the Rays entering the first month of the season: Kyle Farnsworth, B.J. Upton and Sam Fuld were injured, their schedule was grueling, there was uncertainty in the bullpen and the lineup had a few question marks.
But as the calendar turns to May on Tuesday, Tampa Bay will have its second-best April record in club history, behind only the 17-6 mark in 2010. The injuries haven't created gaping holes on the roster, Fernando Rodney has helped solidify the bullpen, and the Rays entered Monday's game ranked eighth in the Majors with 103 runs scored.
"If you would've told me this was going to be our record at this particular moment before it all began, absolutely I'd take it. We've worked pretty hard to get to this point," manager Joe Maddon said. "We've talked about it a lot. We try to anticipate things in advance, and I think we've done a good job with that. It's a great place to be at the end of April, and now we've got to just keep pushing forward.
"I think we're getting close to clicking on all cylinders because of the pitching; the starters are coming back, and there's more form to the bullpen. When we have that going on, everything kind of takes shape a little bit easier."
Even more reassuring, the Rays entered Monday with a 14-8 record despite playing against several of the clubs predicted to be among the American League's best: the Yankees, Tigers, Red Sox, Blue Jays, Angels and Rangers. But they certainly haven't let their guards down.
"There's still a long way to go, and you have to play well against everybody," utility man Ben Zobrist said. "[A strong start] does matter, but it doesn't matter any less than those games at the end of the season matter."
"We've done a lot of things well. We've hit for power. We've worked walks. We've played small ball," added Luke Scott. "At the same time, I believe we're capable of a lot more. We haven't really hit on all cylinders yet. We've done a lot of things well at the same time. We've just got to build on it and continue to get better."
Longoria exits, likely to have tests on sore knee
ST. PETERSBURG -- Rays third baseman Evan Longoria left Monday night's 3-2 win over the Mariners after the third inning with left knee soreness, an injury manager Joe Maddon described as a "day-to-day gig right now."
Longoria reached on a one-out single to left field in the third and was thrown out trying to steal second. He slid awkwardly into the base and appeared to catch his foot on Mariners shortstop Brendan Ryan's cleat, coming up with a slight limp as he walked back toward the dugout. Maddon said he didn't know exactly when Longoria sustained the injury -- a "little bit" of soreness behind the knee, as Maddon described it -- but he will likely undergo tests Tuesday.
Elliot Johnson replaced Longoria at third base the next inning, batting in the three-hole between Carlos Pena and Luke Scott. Johnson couldn't come through in two opportunities with a runner on third in a tie game, but he eventually delivered a walk-off single to left field in the 12th inning.
"We definitely celebrated our win the way we always do," first baseman Carlos Pena said. "That's the way Evan would want it anyway. Obviously we're a little concerned. All of us are praying for him because he is a very important part of this ballclub, and we want to make sure that he's healthy, not only for us but most importantly for himself because I know he loves to be out there.
"We expect good news. We anticipate him to be back soon. That's where our mind is right now."
Longoria has started every game this season and is off to a great start at the plate, batting .329 with seven doubles, four homers, 15 walks and 19 RBIs. But the Rays have succeeded without him before, most recently in 2011 before he returned and put up outstanding numbers during the second half of the season.
"Obviously we're all worried about him. We don't know exactly what's going on, but anytime you lose a guy like that from your lineup, it's a big blow," center fielder B.J. Upton said. "I think we've got a good enough group around here to find a way to win. For the time being, if he's not playing, we're going to have to find a way. That's what it's about.
"We definitely never want to do it without him. Missing him in the lineup's big. But I think we know how to do it. We've been in this situation before, and we'll find a way to do it. Hopefully he's back sooner rather than later."
Signing of Matsui lauded by Maddon, players
ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rays announced Monday that they signed Hideki Matsui to a Minor League deal, and he is expected to report to extended spring training on Wednesday after meeting with the media Tuesday at Tropicana Field. The reaction in the Rays' clubhouse was entirely positive, and everyone seemed pleased to have a hitter with his track record bolstering the organization's depth.
"It's absolutely wonderful to have this guy in our organization," said manager Joe Maddon, who offered no timeframe for Matsui to reach Triple-A or the Majors. "One thing Andrew [Friedman] always talks about is adding depth. During the course of a championship season, your depth is always challenged. My goodness, this is a wonderful person to have when you're considering depth within the organization."
Maddon first met Matsui at the 2003 All-Star Game, saying he's always been a big fan of the Japanese outfielder/designated hitter. Maddon praised Matsui's professionalism and tendency to come through in the clutch, also noting that he appeared to be moving better with Oakland in 2011 than he had in years past.
"They're getting a true professional, a wonderful teammate for a lot of guys, a wonderful friend in that room," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "To me, he was a great player for the Yankees and he had a pretty good second half last year. My thought is they're getting a good player and a good guy to have in the clubhouse."
"He's a real nice guy, real down-to-earth," said Rays outfielder Brandon Allen, who briefly shared the A's clubhouse with Matsui last season. "He'll help you out and talk to you. He's a guy you can learn from."
"He's had a tremendous career in Japan," said Rays DH Luke Scott. "He's had a tremendous career in the United States. He's done real well, especially in the American League East. He played for a world championship team. He's a great hitter. You look at it from the standpoint of the ownership, what would happen in the worst-case scenario with anybody? ... They've got to answer those questions and be prepared just in case."
Outfielder Jennings gets first breather of season
ST. PETERSBURG -- Desmond Jennings was out of the starting lineup Monday night for the first time this season, taking a scheduled day off against Mariners right-hander Felix Hernandez.
Rays manager Joe Maddon said he would have preferred to give Jennings a full day off, but the 25-year-old outfielder was available off the bench as a late-inning defensive replacement if needed.
"I just thought it was time for him," Maddon said. "He's been going after it pretty hard playing both center and left field, diving -- he's been all over the place."
With Jennings on the bench, Maddon chose to bat Ben Zobrist leadoff. Zobrist might not seem ideal for that role given his .213 batting average this season, but his other numbers have been up to par: a .355 on-base percentage due to a team-high 16 walks and a .440 slugging percentage with nine extra-base hits and 11 RBIs.
"I feel good being at the top of the order because I feel like I can get on base for the other guys that are the thumpers, and they're going to bring me in," Zobrist said. "I also enjoy hitting in the middle of the lineup. Wherever Joe has put me, I feel comfortable that I can help the team win."
Left-hander Matt Moore, who will start Tuesday night's game, was met with an unexpected question from the Japanese media assembled at Tropicana Field following the announcement that the Rays had signed Hideki Matsui: Would Moore be willing to give up his No. 55 jersey for Matsui if he makes it to the Majors?
"I'm not too attached to anything, so I don't know. I don't know if he wants 55 here anyway," Moore said. "We'll see. That's a lot of ifs. If that happens, we'll deal with it."
Triple-A Durham outfielder Brandon Guyer was placed on the disabled list effective Friday with a left ankle sprain.
Several Rays were asked Monday afternoon about the attitude and energy Fernando Rodney has brought to the club while filling in quite successfully as the de facto crooked-capped closer in April. Among the highlights:
Manager Joe Maddon: "I'd much prefer being more like him than the other way around."
Utility man Ben Zobrist: "He just brings that little bit of crazy that you need on the mound in the ninth inning."
Designated hitter Luke Scott: "I think the only chance of Fernando Rodney wearing his hat straight this year is if a real stiff wind comes and blows it straight."