ST. PETERSBURG -- Hank Conger was handed his first start of the season behind the plate by manager Mike Scioscia on Tuesday as the Angels opened a brief two-game set against the Rays at Tropicana Field, with Jered Weaver facing Jeff Niemann.
Jeff Mathis caught three of the four games in Kansas City, with Bobby Wilson handling the fourth.
Conger was in the No. 8 spot in the order, between first baseman Mark Trumbo and center fielder Peter Bourjos, his former teammates at Triple-A Salt Lake.
Conger, a switch-hitter with power and discipline from both sides of the plate, made his Major League debut as a starter last September with Weaver on the mound. It turned out to be a memorable night for both.
Weaver handed Conger the game ball to go with a souvenir ball he gathered after his first big league hit, a two-run single in the first inning that helped create breathing room for the ace.
"It was his first win," Weaver said, grinning, after the 7-0 decision over the Indians in Cleveland. "It kind of caught me off guard when I came in and saw he was catching. Before the game, I knew he was nervous -- I've been around a little bit.
"I told him to go out and have some fun. I said, `If I don't like the pitch you call, I'll shake you off.' He did his homework. He watched tape of their hitters and my tape and knew what I wanted to do. And he brought it into the game. It was a great experience for him -- and me."
A two-out single by Shin-Soo Choo in the fourth inning provided the Tribe with its lone baserunner through seven innings. Weaver, having thrown 100 pitches in dispatching 21 of the 22 hitters, turned it over to the bullpen for the final six outs.
The club's 2006 first-round Draft pick, Conger went the other way to deliver a two-out, two-strike single during a four-run first inning.
"I was pretty nervous," said Conger, who spent time with fellow receivers Mike Napoli, Mathis and Bobby Wilson before the game. "Everyone's been great to help me feel comfortable. I was a little surprised [by the starting assignment]. I watched as much video as possible."
Walden in, Rodney out as closer
ST. PETERSBURG -- Angels manager Mike Scioscia doesn't know how long it will last, but Jordan Walden is his new closer. The young gun replaces veteran Fernando Rodney, who will try to find what's been missing in a bullpen role with less impact.
"We had good conversations with Fernando," Scioscia said before Tuesday night's series opener against the Rays. "There are some things he needs to reconnect with in his delivery, getting it more compact. He's been a little long with it.
"Tonight, Jordan will close. We need Fernando, whether it's the seventh, eighth or ninth. We'll focus on getting Fernando right along with Kevin Jepsen, Michael Kohn, all those guys [throwing] to their abilities."
Walden appeared in three of the four games in Kansas City, going 2 1/3 scoreless innings and giving up one hit and one walk while striking out five. He was dominant this spring.
"If it lasts all season and Jordan takes off and runs with it, fine," Scioscia said. "If it's Fernando, that's fine, too. We don't have to answer that today."
The bullpen struggled in losing three of four to the Royals. In 16 combined innings, the relief corps yielded nine earned runs on 19 hits and 12 walks. Rodney coughed up four walks and two earned runs while getting four outs in two appearances.
Downs might make rehab outing Thursday
ST. PETERSBURG -- Scott Downs, recovering from a broken bone in his left big toe, pitched in a simulated game on Tuesday afternoon at Tropicana Field and could appear in a rehab game as early as Thursday when the Angels' high Class A Inland Empire affiliate opens its California League season.
"He did everything he's going to need to do," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said of Downs, who threw the equivalent of an inning. "His agility was fine. We'll test him and schedule rehab for him, probably Thursday."
A veteran southpaw who excelled in a setup role in Toronto, Downs was signed to a three-year, $15 million free-agent contract in December. He's expected to be the team's eighth-inning man when he joins the bullpen.
Aybar sits again, Callaspo in the lineup
ST. PETERSBURG -- Shortstop Erick Aybar was out of the lineup for the second consecutive game on Tuesday at Tropicana Field because of pain in his left side. Alberto Callaspo took his place in the lineup against the Rays, batting sixth, with Maicer Izturis at shortstop.
"It's just a little pain, not bad," Aybar said, adding that he hopes to be back at shortstop for the series finale, on Wednesday. "I'm not worried about it."
Aybar felt the slight pull as he was making a head-first slide into third base after hitting a double on Saturday in Kansas City. As Callaspo was thrown out at home on a relay, Aybar raced safely to third.
Aybar and Callaspo, both switch-hitters, are off to strong starts offensively. Aybar is batting .417 in five at-bats with three doubles and two RBIs, and Callaspo is batting .500 with two doubles and a homer among his six hits. He also has two RBIs.
Angels' table-setters are coming through
ST. PETERSBURG -- The Angels had their issues in Kansas City while dropping three of four games to the Royals, but they had no complaints about the top third of their lineup.
Maicer Izturis, Howard Kendrick and Bobby Abreu excelled in terms of getting on base and setting the offense in motion. They also did a pretty fair job of driving the ball, a secondary responsibility.
"That top three is going to be strong," said Abreu, who has thrived throughout his career in the No. 3 spot in the lineup. "Our on-base percentage has been really good. I think we can keep it going."
In addition, Izturis (.353), Kendrick (.400) and Abreu (.524) had a combined .431 OBP. Erick Aybar assumed Izturis' leadoff role for one game and went 2-for-4, bringing the collective OBP from the top three in the order to .435.
Despite launching two monster home runs, Torii Hunter (.211, two RBIs) and Vernon Wells (.167, one RBI) did not take advantage of the activity in front of them. As a team, the Angels batted .167 (7-for-42) with runners in scoring position.
"Put that one on me," Hunter said after going 1-for-7 and leaving eight runners stranded in Sunday's 12-9 loss. The right fielder personally apologized to Abreu, who was 5-for-5 (for the third time in his career) along with two walks.
"Forget about it," Abreu told Hunter. "You do enough for this team. We'll get it all together. I'm not worried about it."
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.