CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Jeff Keppinger was in the No. 2 spot in the batting order on Thursday, and Rays manager Joe Maddon said he might use Keppinger in that role often this season.
Maddon praised Keppinger for his ability to put the ball in play, and said he would be invaluable with runners on base, especially with someone like Desmond Jennings as the leadoff hitter.
"You know he's going to move the baseball," Maddon said. "He's a contact guy. He's never really in trouble."
Keppinger has a career .281 average and .332 on-base percentage in seven big league seasons.
Jennings feeling good back in center field
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Desmond Jennings was back in the outfield on Thursday against the Phillies after being the designated hitter the past two games due to a right shoulder issue.
Jennings started in center and went 1-for-3 with a double and a stolen base. It was the first extra-base hit this spring for Jennings.
"I feel great," said Jennings, who came up in the Minors as a center fielder. "I feel 100 percent and there are no issues with my health. It felt great to get out there and do some things. Hopefully, I'll be able to make some plays in the outfield and some throws."
With B.J. Upton beginning the season on the disabled list, it was a good sign for the Rays, as Jennings is expected to start in center until Upton's return. Jennings has played center in just 12 games for the Rays over two seasons.
Jennings said he is healthy enough to play in the field over the next few days to get ready for the season.
"I'm good to go," Jennings said. "I need to get out there and run around a little bit and get some good reads on some balls. I need to get my innings in at center. It feels natural, though."
Rays manager Joe Maddon said the team will wait until Friday morning before making a decision on whether Jennings will play in the field against the Pirates.
"It's nice to see him out there, and we will just wait and see how he feels [on Friday] before making a decision on whether he'll play in the field [against the Pirates]," Maddon said.
Hellickson bounces back in latest outing
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Jeremy Hellickson increased his pitch count to a regular-season level in Thursday's outing against the Phillies, as Rays manager Joe Maddon begins prepping his starters for the 2012 campaign.
More importantly, it was the best outing this spring for Hellickson since he tossed two scoreless innings in his first appearance on March 4 against the Twins.
Hellickson, who threw 109 pitches, 69 for strikes, allowed one run on seven hits. He walked two and struck out three. The 24-year-old right-hander was relieved in the seventh inning after allowing a leadoff single to Juan Pierre.
"I've been working on some things the last few starts, and I stuck with my fastball and changeup this time," Hellickson said after the Rays' 2-1 loss. "I took the mindset into it like a regular-season game, and I threw more strikes today, which helped out a lot."
It was the first time Jose Molina caught for Hellickson, and the connection took shape quickly. There were two occasions during the game when Molina came out to have a discussion with his battery mate, both times with runners on base.
Hellickson relayed the conversation that occurred in the third inning, after Placido Polanco singled to center on a 3-2 changeup, which moved Cole Hamels to third.
"He came out there and he just told me not to baby it," Hellickson said. "I kind of just aimed it in there [to Polanco], hoping for a strike. He told me not to worry about if I walk him. He said to just throw it without trying to be perfect."
Molina said he wanted to encourage Hellickson to pitch without worry.
"He was losing it a little bit and wasn't concentrating 100 percent, so I just wanted to push him to give that extra effort," Molina said. "He did great, and he really was able to tap into his 'A' game today."
Before Thursday, Hellickson had looked subpar recently. He gave up 10 runs on 11 hits in three innings against the Twins on Saturday, three runs on five hits over 4 1/3 innings in a Minor League game on March 19 and four runs on four hits in three innings against the Marlins on March 14.
"It feels good to put up zeroes, but my confidence wasn't shot or anything like that," Hellickson said. "Of course it felt good to make better pitches and to put in some innings. I'm ready to go."
Hellickson, who is slated to be the No. 3 starter in the Rays' rotation, will make one more Grapefruit League appearance. Maddon said the right-hander will "dial it down a bit" in that start and "probably go around 40 or 50 pitches."
Maddon wants Johnson to utilize his power
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Before Thursday's game against the Phillies, Rays manager Joe Maddon said Elliot Johnson needed to tap into his power source a bit more.
"The big thing with Elliot is we just try to get him more offensively to become contact-oriented," Maddon said. "He's got power, and when the count gets deeper, let's move the ball. As he gets more of a mentality like that, he will become a more valuable baseball player and more employable in the industry."
Maddon mentioned Johnson's home run against the Twins on Monday, and said Johnson, who's batting .192 this spring, will increase his chances of playing in the Major Leagues if he displays such power more often, whether it is with the Rays or another organization.
"Of course I want [Johnson] to do great for us, but I want to try and have all the younger guys understand how to increase their security in the industry," Maddon said. "Job security is the group you work with right now. Employment security is the group you work with in the industry. The choices you make to increase your value to a team is invaluable to your employment."
Johnson's value comes in his position flexibility. He has played seven different positions (first base, second, third, shortstop, left field, center and right) this spring, along with some stints at designated hitter.
Rays manager Joe Maddon said the division races will benefit from the extra Wild Card, and he believes teams will strive for a division title because of it. "With all the really good teams in the American League, winning the division becomes that much more important." Maddon mentioned the Angels, Tigers and Rangers in the discussion for "teams to watch out for" this season. Evan Longoria hit his second home run of the spring with a solo shot in the fourth inning off Phillies starter Cole Hamels.
J.P. Howell tossed one scoreless inning in relief in a Minor League game in Port Charlotte on Thursday. The left-hander allowed one walk during his 22-pitch appearance. Luke Scott went 1-for-3 with a double and a walk. Wade Davis, who was scheduled to pitch in the game, tossed a bullpen session instead.
Chris Girandola is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.