ST. PETERSBURG -- Reliever J.P. Howell was throwing in right field at Tropicana Field before Sunday's game against the Mariners, and he will be back on the field Monday to throw a simulated game.

Howell, rehabbing a left shoulder strain, will pitch with "no string attached" on Monday, manager Joe Maddon said, meaning the left-hander should be able to throw at maximum velocity without having to hold back.

Maddon said he didn't know exactly how many pitches Howell will throw in the simulated game, but he estimated it would be around 30.

"Thirty pitches is a lot for him in a game," Maddon said. "I'd say if he gets to that point, that'd be about right."

If the simulated game goes well, Maddon said the next step will be to plan Howell's rehab assignment, most likely starting in Port Charlotte with the club's high Class A team. Howell could begin the process of working his way back up to the Major Leagues as early as next week, as Maddon said that decision will come three or four days after Monday's simulated game.

Blalock starts at first base in series finale

ST. PETERSBURG -- It didn't take Hank Blalock long to find himself in the Rays' starting lineup.

Blalock, who was called up from Triple-A Durham before Saturday night's game, got the start at first base Sunday afternoon. Wearing No. 9, Tampa Bay's newest addition hit sixth in the order.

"It is a good feeling for me," Blalock said about seeing his name on the lineup card. "It's important that there's some stuff to back up on when I'm out there, because I'm playing for the best team in baseball right now. It's important that I'm a part of this team that keeps that going."

Manager Joe Maddon said he put the left-handed-hitting Blalock in the lineup because he has performed well historically against Seattle lefty Cliff Lee and did well against left-handers while playing with Durham.

Blalock, who played 24 games at third base and two at designated hitter for the Bulls, said he feels comfortable at first. Although he spent most of his time in Durham at the opposite corner, Blalock took some ground balls before the game and said he was confident in his defense.

"I was able to get into a rhythm to where I felt at third base like I did my first couple years in the big leagues," Blalock said. "I'm glad that I got that rhythm back so that there's no hesitation if [third baseman Evan Longoria] wants to DH or get off his feet for a day."

Perhaps most importantly, the 29-year-old said his time with the team during Spring Training made the adjustment on the field and in the clubhouse much easier.

"It definitely helps the comfort level that it turned out that the team I got called up with was the one I was with in Spring Training," Blalock said. "So I'm not coming into a clubhouse of strangers."

Role suits Rays' Brignac just fine

ST. PETERSBURG -- Infielder Reid Brignac went to Spring Training with the Rays competing for a roster spot. Working against him was the fact he is an outstanding shortstop, which might have prompted the Rays to keep him at Triple-A Durham playing shortstop every day rather than having him in the Major Leagues backing up regular shortstop Jason Bartlett while also playing second base.

Well, Brignac won a job and has since played in 25 of the team's 36 games, posting a .279 average with two home runs and 15 RBIs while playing mostly shortstop. He produced a crucial pinch-hit single in Saturday's 3-2 Rays win to give him four hits in seven pinch-hit appearances.

Count manager Joe Maddon among the growing group of people impressed by Brignac's performance.

"He's hit better, he's played better defense than I thought he could at second base, [and off the bench he's stayed ready," Maddon said. "He's playing off the bench like a veteran right now. He really is. ... He's done a great job. The best way I can describe him is he stays ready all the time. He likes the big leagues. He wants to stay in the big leagues. He'll do whatever he needs to stay in the big leagues until it's his turn to play shortstop."

Brignac called playing second base a "new and interesting challenge."

"I'm having fun doing it," Brignac said. "I'm glad that I'm doing it. Now I can play more than one position and play it well. Pinch-hitting and coming off the bench has been fun because most of the times it's been in key situations where I've had an opportunity to drive in a run or move a runner over, [I'm] in a situation where I can help us score a run or put us ahead."

Brignac feels as though wearing a lot of hats at the Major League level has been more beneficial to him and the Rays than having him playing shortstop every day at Triple-A Durham.

"I definitely think it's worked out this way," Brignac said. "I don't think I would have gained as much knowledge or experience in Triple-A as I have the first couple of months here. Coming off the bench or [starting] here, I've played in just about every game. I like my role and that I'm a part of this team, and I want to stay a part of this team as long as possible."

Brignac dismissed the idea that his shortstop skills might get rusty, noting that he still takes a lot of ground balls at the position prior to the game.

"I'm not just going to lose that sense," he said. "That's been with me my whole life."

Better fastball improves Shields' strikeouts

ST. PETERSBURG -- The 10 strikeouts accrued by Rays right-hander James Shields in his most recent start Saturday moved him to 59 for the season and into a three-way tie for the American League strikeout lead with Jered Weaver (Angels) and Ricky Romero (Blue Jays) entering Sunday.

Shields has recorded double-digit strikeouts in three of his past four starts. Prior to that stretch, he had gone 84 consecutive starts without reaching double digits.

Rays manager Joe Maddon was asked to cite any differences in Shields that could be responsible for the strikeout numbers.

"Two things: [he's able to throw the] fastball where he wants to, [and has] fastball command," Maddon said. "And much better depth on his changeup this year. He's kind of pitching like he did a couple of years ago. He's still using the cutter but not as often. He's using his curveball, but I think he's gone back to primarily fastball-changeup and then he's incorporated the other pitches, Whereas last year I thought he was more fastball-cutter and then he would incorporate his changeup. Just a better utilization of his weapons [this season]."

Throughout Spring Training, Shields harped on how he did not want to nitpick as much this season as he has in seasons past; Maddon believes that mindset has helped the Rays' No. 1 starter, too.

"He's getting in better counts to strike out people," Maddon said. "By using the fastball, getting ahead with the fastball, and they're not seeing all this other stuff early, then it really makes that other pitch a better pitch. He had 93 pitches after eight innings [Saturday], and that speaks to the fastball."