Rays on the rise

After going 5-1 during their latest homestand and reaching .500, the defending AL champion Tampa Bay Rays are eager to show that they are back in the hunt in the AL East.

The Rays were scheduled to begin an important weekend series last night at Yankee Stadium, but they will have to wait a day. Rain postponed the game.

"We need to maintain our traction and keep moving forward," manager Joe Maddon said.

The Rays' hopes of overtaking the Yankees and Red Sox in the division rest largely on the health of 23-year-old star Evan Longoria, who missed the last two games with a sore left hamstring. Longoria hoped he would be ready for the series against the Yankees.

"When I'm ready to play, I want to be as close to 100 percent as I can be, both physically and mentally," Longoria said. "I think if I try to rush back and feel any kind of discomfort or don't have full confidence in it, it's going to be just a hindrance to it. But I'm pretty close."

Johnson to Red Sox?

In his ESPN.com blog, Buster Olney quoted a talent evaluator as saying Washington's Nick Johnson would be a great fit for Boston to take the place of struggling David Ortiz.

"He'd be a perfect fit for the Red Sox," the talent evaluator said. "You put Johnson and [Kevin] Youkilis in that lineup back-to-back, and the opposing pitcher would constantly need eight or 10 or 15 pitches to get through just those two guys every time through the lineup."

Youkilis and Johnson are known for taking a lot of pitches. Youkilis ranks second in the majors with an average of 4.47 pitches per plate appearance. He has influenced several of his teammates in that category, which may be why it seems every Red Sox game lasts about four hours.

Johnson averages 4.12 pitches per plate appearance, which ranks 26th in the majors. An NL scout said his swing would be perfect for Fenway Park. "He'd play pepper with the left-field wall," the scout said.

Ortiz is talking about getting his eyes checked, according to a report by Ron Borges of the Boston Globe. That's a sure sign of desperation.

Setback for Willis

After two quality starts in four appearances since he spent the first part of the year on the disabled list because of an anxiety disorder, Tigers lefthander Dontrelle Willis self-destructed in the third inning Thursday night against Boston. He hit Jacoby Ellsbury, then walked four batters before he was removed. One was a four-pitch walk. Two others took five pitches.

"This is the first time I was really flustered on the mound," Willis said. "I threw some good pitches, didn't get the calls, and I let that get the best of me."

In the 6-3 loss, Willis allowed five runs on no hits. The last pitcher to throw at least two innings and allow five runs without a hit was Sandy Koufax on June 3, 1958.

Noteworthy

Former Cleveland Indians owner Richard E. Jacobs, 83, died. The team's ballpark in downtown Cleveland became Jacobs Field when it opened in 1994. He owned the club until 2001. . . .A former Los Angeles Angels executive is part of a Major League Baseball investigation into skimming of signing bonuses for Latin American prospects, SI.com reported. Clay Daniel was fired this week as the Angels' director of international scouting. He told the Los Angeles Times the team did not tell him why he was dismissed. . . . Baltimore Orioles shortstop Cesar Izturis was scheduled to undergo an appendectomy last night after suffering severe stomach pains.

Contact staff writer Ray Parrillo at 215-854-2743 or rparrillo@phillynews.com.