By JOHN ROMANO
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 17, 2001
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- For the first time this season, the Devil Rays have a true backup at shortstop. And manager Hal McRae would like to keep him.
The Rays called up Andy Sheets from Triple-A Durham pm Wednesday to replace second baseman Russ Johnson, who was placed on the disabled list with a strained right quadricep.
Sheets will start at shortstop today, giving Felix Martinez a break, and will get the majority of starts in place of Johnson at second during the next two weeks. Damian Rolls also will see time at second base.
Before Sheets' arrival, the Rays were somewhat suspect behind Martinez as short. Johnson was the main backup but is more suited for second base. Rolls also can play short but is more of a third baseman.
Sheets can play any infield position but has spent the bulk of his career at shortstop.
"I really would like to have a pure shortstop," McRae said. "I don't think we have the luxury of saying somebody else can play (shortstop)."
The Rays could keep Sheets even when Johnson comes off the disabled list by sending down a pitcher. Tampa Bay has 12 pitchers instead of the usual 11.
Sheets, 29, has been in this role before. He has spent parts of the past five seasons bouncing between Triple A and the majors.
"You try not to go up there thinking, 'I've got to get a hit, I've got to get a hit,' " Sheets said. "But you want to do things to show them you can help the team." Sheets was hitting .291 with 15 RBI in 35 games at Durham.
EAGER TO GO: During his first day on the disabled list, Johnson was talking about beginning a minor-league rehabilitation assignment.
Johnson's injury was not considered serious, but Tampa Bay's lack of depth in the infield necessitated his move to the DL. Johnson said he woke up Wednesday able to walk without difficulty or pain. He said he will take it easy for a few days, do some workouts and then go to the minors for a week to get sharp again.
"This is a four- or five-day deal. That's why it's so depressing to me," Johnson said. "But I'll take my 15-day vacation, go down and do a rehab and then I'll be ready to rock."
OFF THE FARM: McRae is not the only Ray with heavy fan support in Kansas City. Rookie Travis Phelps said he had to come up with 105 tickets for Tuesday's game.
Phelps grew up in southern Missouri and his family still owns a farm about three hours south of Kansas City. Since the Rays had an off day Monday, Phelps took the opportunity to drive home.
"I didn't tell anybody I was going to drive home; it was sort of a surprise for my mom and grandma for Mother's Day," Phelps said. "It was nice because it was the first time I've been there in the summer in five years. It was the first time I saw everything green in a long time."
His mother has 11 siblings, so Phelps had to do some politicking to pick up extra tickets from other players.
"It's the first time a lot of them have seen me play, so they're fired up," Phelps said.
LOPEZ UPDATE: Albie Lopez went through agility drills with strength coach Jason Trott on Tuesday and said he was feeling normal soreness Wednesday. He is cautiously optimistic he can pitch Saturday despite his right groin pull.
"What I need is a ta da pill," Lopez said. "You know, 'TA DA' and I'm all better."
WHERE: Kauffman Stadium, Kansas City, Mo.
TV/RADIO: Ch. 32; WFLA-AM 970, WLCC-AM 760 (Spanish).
WEATHER FORECAST: Chance of isolated thunderstorms with a high of 81 degrees and a low of 64.
Rays record when:
Ahead after six innings: 7-3
Ahead after seven: 9-2
Ahead after eight: 11-0
Behind after six innings: 0-21
Behind after seven: 0-23
Behind after eight: 0-25
Tied after six innings: 4-2
Tied after seven: 2-1
Tied after eight: 1-1
BRIAN ROSE: Rose (0-1, 6.94) is making his second start since replacing Mike Judd in the rotation. At Cleveland on Saturday, he gave up seven runs in five innings. He is 0-1 lifetime against Kansas City with a 5.25 ERA, including a 22/3-inning relief stint this season, giving up one run.
CHAD DURBIN: Durbin (1-2, 6.05) is making his third start since coming up from Triple A on May 1. He won his last start at Minnesota on Saturday. He started two games against the Rays in 2000, going 0-1 with a 4.76 ERA.
The most popular player at Wednesday night's game was not in uniform. Former Negro Leagues great Buck O'Neil was around the batting cages before the game and was warmly greeted by players, including Greg Vaughn and Rusty Meacham. Rays manager Hal McRae and first-base coach Lee May joined O'Neil at a luncheon Wednesday afternoon for the Negro League Hall of Fame.