Jeff Niemann gets in regular work as rest of Tampa Bay Rays get day off

PORT CHARLOTTE — With Monday serving as the Rays' lone off day of the spring, RHP Jeff Niemann got the short end of the stick.

Niemann made a start in a minor-league intrasquad game on the back fields at Charlotte Sports Park to make sure he got his work in and stayed on schedule.

"It happens to one guy every year," he said, smiling. "And this is my turn."

But Niemann was encouraged with how it went, throwing five scoreless innings, allowing just two hits while striking out six and walking one in the 62-pitch outing. He was able to throw his offspeed pitches for strikes, including striking out a batter with a curveball on a 3-and-2 count.

"Throwing that 3-2 curveball is something you're going to do during the season, so you might as well do it now," Niemann said. "The first few times out, I kind of held the curveball back a little bit. But now we're getting to the point where we kind of need to be game-ready and get everything honed and sharp. That's what we were doing (Monday), throwing some stuff that those guys probably weren't used to seeing."

WELCOME BACK: The Rays claimed LHP Cesar Cabral off waivers from the Blue Jays on Monday, two days after the Jays claimed him from Tampa Bay.

The Rays had been intrigued with Cabral, 22, in camp after acquiring him in the Rule 5 draft from the Red Sox. But per Rule 5 requirements, they'll still have to keep him on the roster all year or return him to Boston.

LEANING LEFT: Manager Joe Maddon said LHP Jake McGee is making good progress with one of his main objectives in camp: improving his slider.

With McGee vying for one of the bullpen spots, developing that pitch is important, giving him another weapon to go with an overpowering fastball. McGee said he can now throw his slider just like his fastball, making it more difficult for hitters to pick up, and has confidence using it behind in the count.

"All of a sudden it's got better break, better depth, better form," Maddon said. "That could make him very good. … It can work against right-handers, also. If Jake continues to develop that slider, that makes him very, very interesting."

WEEKEND AT ZIGGY'S: Maddon said the day off came at just the right time. Not only because it was at just about the midpoint of the exhibition schedule, but because it followed what was essentially a weekend at home, playing in Clearwater on Saturday and Dunedin on Sunday, and he gave credit to team travel director Jeff Ziegler for altering the schedule to make it work. "I really like the way it was set up," Maddon said. "That permitted us to have this pretty good weekend. … It had a nice relaxing tone to it, and then it was followed by the off day. That was good planning on Ziggy's part."

KIDS PLAY: The Rays aren't thinking about using rotation prospects such as Chris Archer or Alex Cobb in relief, Maddon said, because their futures are too bright as starters. "It's just like David Price a couple years ago when we sent him back out (to the minors) and everyone wanted to make him the closer at that time, but we felt it was really important to keep him as a starter," Maddon said. "Those kids there can be like outstanding."

MISCELLANY: 3B Evan Longoria is expected back in the lineup today after leaving Saturday's game early and missing Sunday's due to dehydration and cramping.

Times staff writer Marc Topkin contributed to this report. Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@sptimes.com.

Jeff Niemann gets in regular work as rest of Tampa Bay Rays get day off 03/14/11 [Last modified: Monday, March 14, 2011 11:15pm]

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