PORT CHARLOTTE — The battle for the final spots in the Rays rotation likely won't be settled until the end of March.
But RHP Jeff Niemann has made a strong opening case.
Niemann followed a solid debut with a stellar outing in Sunday's 4-3 win over the Pirates, zipping through three perfect innings, 27 pitches enough to do so. His day was so good he went to the bullpen afterward to throw another 15 pitches.
"Today was pretty smooth," he said. "We threw a lot of strikes and they were pretty aggressive, so a lot of early balls were put in play, and that kind of plays into my hand when we're throwing quality pitches up there."
In five spring innings, Niemann has allowed only an unearned run on two hits, striking out three and walking none. RHP Wade Davis has allowed four hits and four walks, with three strikeouts and two earned runs, in his 41/3 innings.
Watching Niemann on Sunday, manager Joe Maddon was reminded of how dominant he can be: "He had a nice tempo about him, I saw a good confident look and the ball was moving all over the place."
FIRST TIMERS: Both 3B Evan Longoria (bruised right hand) and DH Luke Scott (right shoulder surgery) said they came through their exhibition debuts well.
Longoria looked a little rusty, grounding out, walking and knocking in a run with a sac fly while making a throwing error that led to a run, but he said he was thrilled just to be playing for the first time since March 1. "My hand feels good but more important is to be back out on the field and just start to feel like a baseball player again," he said. "It's tough sitting around watching."
Scott, who flew out softly to left and struck out swinging, said his timing was understandably off in his first game since July 22, but the key was that he had no pain. Next is to get past the subliminal urge to hold back.
"It's a good feeling to know as I'm taking my swings my shoulder isn't coming out, isn't coming back in," he said. "It's encouraging. I still have to get that in my mind; my body tries to tell itself protect the shoulder."
RHP Brandon Gomes (back surgery) also made his first game appearance with a 1-2-3 eighth.
PITCHING IN: LHP David Price threw a bullpen session with no lingering effects from his towel-induced stiff neck and is set to make his next start on schedule Tuesday in Sarasota against the Orioles. "I'm a go," he said. … LHP Matt Moore came through his final tuneup with no issues from his mild abdominal strain and is set to make his exhibition debut in the same game. Though it will be 11 days into the exhibition season, Maddon said they are confident Moore can be ready for the regular season.
CATCHING ON: Maddon said none of the candidates for the other half of the catcher's job with Jose Molina has really stood out yet.
He acknowledged that Stephen Vogt, hitting .368, has stood out offensively and that Jose Lobaton has thrown well, but with defense the priority, there is no leader. Robinson Chirinos and nonroster veteran Chris Gimenez are the other candidates.
GAME DETAILS: After RHP Josh Lueke, competing for the last bullpen spot, gave up a homer to Jake Fox with two outs in the ninth, the Rays (3-6) rallied to win 4-3. Minor-leaguer John Shelby beat out an infield single, nonroster INF Matt Mangini doubled and Gimenez hit a sharp grounder off pitcher Doug Slaten's glove that went through the infield. … SS Reid Brignac scored Longoria on a fifth-inning squeeze bunt Maddon called "actually perfect." … LF Jesus Feliciano and SS Hak-Ju Lee had dazzling defensive plays.