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Jeff Niemann hits setback in bid to join Tampa Bay Rays' rotation

Catcher Dioner Navarro tries to get Jeff Niemann back on track. Niemann, who had been solid in 11 previous innings, was charged with nine runs and only got two outs in a loss to Toronto.

BRIAN CASSELLA | Times

Catcher Dioner Navarro tries to get Jeff Niemann back on track. Niemann, who had been solid in 11 previous innings, was charged with nine runs and only got two outs in a loss to Toronto.

DUNEDIN — With manager Joe Maddon saying he might be able to name his fifth starter by the middle of next week, one of the top candidates — RHP Jeff Niemann — came up with his worst outing of the spring Friday afternoon.

Niemann was charged with nine runs on seven hits (including three walks) in a relief appearance against the Blue Jays, getting just two outs in an outing expected to last about three innings. Niemann said he struggled with his fastball command, falling behind too many hitters. Considering Niemann had been stellar previously this spring (one earned run in his first 11 innings), he was disappointed he didn't put his best foot forward.

"I had the worst outing in probably the most important outing," Niemann said.

The circumstances surrounding Niemann's appearance could be a test run for a possible role in the bullpen. With RHP Matt Garza reaching his pitch count in the fifth, Niemann (2-1, 7.71 ERA) came on with two on and two outs. He issued a walk before giving up back-to-back two-run doubles. Maddon pulled him in the sixth with one out.

"Jeff had a tough time with command of his fastball overall," Maddon said. "That's the thing, he has to be down with that fastball. When he is, he's good."

Maddon said before the game that more than just numbers go into evaluating the rotation competition. Saying "everybody is going to have a bad inning," Maddon added it's "just as important" how pitchers respond in tough moments. He pointed to how RHP Jason Hammel (0-0, 3.94), another candidate, settled in after giving up three early runs in Wednesday's start.

"When everything is going well, guys are going to look good, no question," Maddon said. "But what does it look like when it hits the fan a little bit?"

MEDICAL MATTERS: CF B.J. Upton said he came through Thursday's minor-league DH experience with no problems and that his surgically repaired left shoulder felt good.

Upton will play centerfield for three innings and have three at-bats in a minor-league game today, which could be the last step before he starts playing with the Rays in big-league exhibitions, with an eye toward being ready for the April 6 regular-season opener.

Maddon said Upton could "probably" get in a Rays exhibition by the middle of next week.

"If I can do that (play both ways Saturday), there's no reason I can't get out there with those guys next week," Upton said. "I'm tired of being on the back fields."

OF Matt Joyce is in the lineup for today's game in Fort Lauderdale as the DH, which will be his first big-league game action of the spring after a bout with right leg tendinitis.

DEAD ARM: Garza, charged with four runs in 42/3 innings in the 15-4 loss, said his "arm didn't feel too great" as he's "facing that dead-arm period where it feels like you have nothing in the tank." Garza (74 pitches) was encouraged by the work he got in with his changeup. "Garza threw the ball pretty well," Maddon said.

MISCELLANY: LF Carl Crawford hit a two-run homer for the Rays (10-9-1). … LHP Scott Kazmir is scheduled to start in a minor-league game Tuesday.

Jeff Niemann hits setback in bid to join Tampa Bay Rays' rotation 03/20/09 [Last modified: Saturday, March 21, 2009 6:21am]
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