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Rays demote Niemann, prepare to cut DiFelice

ST. PETERSBURG — The end of Sunday's game was the start of a series of pending roster moves, as the Rays optioned RHP Jeff Niemann back to Triple A to make room for new 1B/DH Dan Johnson.

And they appeared to decide on the next, as veteran backup C Mike DiFelice was seen saying goodbye and hugging teammates before leaving the clubhouse, making room for C Dioner Na-varro's expected return Tuesday.

At least two other moves are coming this week, as RHP Matt Garza — after an ugly but productive rehab start Sunday — is on track to be activated off the DL and start Friday against Boston, with RHP Andy Sonnanstine moving up to fill Niemann's slot Thursday. A position player will be dropped to make room for Garza, with OF Justin Ruggiano, who can be optioned back to Durham, the logical candidate.

Assuming Navarro (finger cuts) gets safely through three plate appearances for Class A Vero Beach tonight in his fourth and final rehab game, he will rejoin the Rays on Tuesday at Disney.

DiFelice, who joked he was merely telling his teammates he couldn't go fishing with them, is likely to be designated for assignment, meaning he could be lost on waivers if another team wants him in the big leagues and leaving Shawn Riggans as the backup.

DiFelice, 38, made a strong bid to stay, especially impressive in his handling of pitchers, but the Rays appear committed to giving Riggans a chance to play.

Niemann (1-0, 5.79) had one good start and one not-so-good and returns to Durham better for the experience and determined to get back and stay. "I'm going to take away a wealth of information from these seven days I've been up here and go back and really put that to use," he said.

He was the obvious choice to go from the seemingly deep rotation, which seems likely to soon add Scott Kazmir, and manager Joe Maddon said the top priority is to improve his fastball command.

"It's appropriate to send him back to continue to polish it up a bit," Maddon said.

Johnson, claimed Friday on waivers from Oakland, was expected to arrive in St. Petersburg on Sunday night and to be in uniform Tuesday, providing an option if 1B Carlos Pena remains limited to DH duties due to his sore right hamstring.

"Watching him run today I'm not convinced that he's ready for defense yet, but we'll know more on Tuesday," Maddon said.

REHAB REPORT: Garza, out since April 9 with radial nerve irritation, allowed 11 baserunners (eight hits and three walks) in 32/3 innings while throwing 68 pitches for Vero but felt fine. … Navarro extended his streak of reaching base to 11 plate appearances with two singles and a homer before grounding out in the fourth. He caught nine innings.

INF Ben Zobrist, out since early March with a fractured left thumb, took batting practice at the minor-league complex but is still a few weeks from returning.

ACHY ARM: SS Jason Bartlett was out of the lineup as planned, with the hope that two-plus days off help an "achy" right arm that Maddon said has "contributed" to his recent erratic play, four throwing errors in seven games.

"We'll try to clean this whole thing up right now and not let it linger, so I think the two days off will be very helpful," Maddon said. "Talking to him and talking to the trainers, I think it's just a rest kind of a thing and he'll come back with a fresher feeling on Tuesday, hopefully."

MISCELLANY: With DH Cliff Floyd expected back from right knee surgery in a few weeks, the Rays seem unlikely to pursue released DH Frank Thomas, who clears waivers Wednesday. … LHP prospect Jake McGee was scratched from a Saturday start at Double-A Montgomery with forearm soreness that is not considered serious. … Tickets remain for the three games at the Disney complex.

Rays demote Niemann, prepare to cut DiFelice 04/20/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 23, 2008 3:31pm]

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