ST. PETERSBURG -- Without much fanfare, Rich Thompson, the amiable Aussie, has become one of the Angels' most dependable and effective relief pitchers.
A man who has spent all or almost all of nine seasons toiling in the Minor Leagues, Thompson has rediscovered his early mindset while incorporating a cut fastball into his repertoire, which has made a difference in taking hitters off his 92-95 mph heater.
In 15 appearances covering a total of 23 innings over the past two seasons, the 26-year-old Sydney resident has allowed three earned runs and 18 baserunners while striking out 16 hitters. He delivered 3 1/3 innings, giving up a solo homer, in his lone appearance this season on Sunday in Kansas City.
"Rich has come light years from where he was a couple years ago," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "He needed to redefine some things. Getting back in counts is tough in the Major Leagues. He didn't have the repertoire to get back in counts. He's doing that now. He's definitely a guy who can pitch later in the game."
Thompson recalls a conversation with former teammate Chone Figgins a few years ago that made an impression.
"Figgy told me, 'Every fastball you throw is the same speed -- you need to take a little off sometimes,'" Thompson recalled. "I've never been a finesse guy. I worked on the cutter, and it has given me what Figgy said I needed, something to get hitters off the fastball.
"I feel like I had to learn the game all over when I got to the Major Leagues. I've always been a guy who challenged hitters in the Minor Leagues; I'm back to being myself. I've never had a feel for the sinker, but that cutter has given a different look for hitters."
Whatever the causes, the effect has been remarkable. After knocking him around for .345, .400 and .329 averages in his first three brief Major League seasons, hitters were held to a combined .171 average last year, and the Royals batted .167 against Thompson in Kansas City.
Wood at shortstop; MRI for Aybar
ST. PETERSBURG -- Angels infielder Brandon Wood was given his first start of the season in Wednesday's matinee against the Rays, playing shortstop and batting ninth.
Erick Aybar, shown to have a "mild strain" of his left oblique in an MRI taken on Wednesday, missed his third consecutive start. Aybar said he wasn't worried about it, but the Angels wanted to take the precautionary measure of determining that it was nothing serious. He felt some pain in his side sliding into third base on Saturday in Kansas City.
"I always feel comfortable at shortstop," said Wood, who made the transition to third base in search of a steady job, with Aybar and Maicer Izturis entrenched at shortstop. "It'll be nice to get out there and play."
Wood came on to finish strong this spring after a sluggish start. Izturis normally plays shortstop when Aybar takes a day off, but manager Mike Scioscia -- keenly aware of the need to keep Izturis healthy -- had his leadoff man in the designated-hitter spot in the finale of a six-game road trip.
Bobby Abreu was in left field, with Vernon Wells moving over to center and Torii Hunter in right. Hot-hitting Alberto Callaspo (.438) remained in the lineup at third base, and Jeff Mathis was back behind the plate.
Taking a day off was center fielder Peter Bourjos, who is hitting .263 through five games with superlative glove work.
Takahashi in search of command
ST. PETERSURG -- Hisanori Takahashi, one the Angels' free-agent bullpen imports along with Scott Downs, narrowly missed on a few borderline pitches in Tuesday night's 5-3 win over the Rays.
Takahashi walked two hitters and gave up a hit and an earned run while getting one out, raising his ERA to 10.13. The former Yomiuri Giants star, an all-purpose weapon last year for the Mets, was close to flawless in Cactus League play.
"I don't think he's locked in yet to what he can do," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "The guy has an uncanny ability to command a baseball. He did just miss [Tuesday night], but there were too many three-ball counts.
"He's got to get ahead [in counts] and give himself a chance to put guys away. It's a balance you have to have, as far as making pitches in different zones. He has the ability to paint and make pitches, and right now he's not exactly where he needs to be."
Scott Downs, the other lefty acquired as a free agent in December, is scheduled to pitch an inning for high Class A Inland Empire on Thursday in his recovery from a broken left big toe.
Downs probably will need at least one more rehab assignment, Scioscia said, before rejoining the Angels' bullpen and fulfilling his anticipated role as an eighth-inning weapon.
With 29 quality starts since the beginning of the 2010 season, Jered Weaver is second in the Majors to Seattle's Felix Hernandez, who has 32. Weaver is 4-1 with a 2.21 ERA in six career starts against the Rays after holding them to one earned run across 6 2/3 innings on Tuesday. Weaver has won his first two starts for the first time since his rookie year in 2006. Going back to last season, he has yielded three or fewer runs in nine consecutive outings, a 2.06 ERA. ... Howard Kendrick's .433 career average against the Rays after going 2-for-2 with two walks in the series opener is the highest among all active players against Tampa Bay pitching. He is 23-for-40 (.575) in his past 11 games against the Rays, with 10 runs scored and eight RBIs. ... Bobby Abreu comes into Wednesday's matinee having reached base in nine of his past 11 at-bats. ... Rays manager Joe Maddon is 17-25 against the Angels, for whom he served as Mike Scioscia's bench coach before moving to Tampa Bay.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.