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Tampa Bay Rays' Jeff Niemann more comfortable before first start

BALTIMORE — After all the anxiety he went through before winning the fifth starter's job Sunday, RHP Jeff Niemann should be fairly comfortable when he makes his first start tonight.

He has pitched at Camden Yards before, so he has a feel for the mound and the backdrop. His two major-league wins are both against the Orioles, so he should have some confidence. He has been able to watch what the other four starters have done this week and how they've done it.

And unlike last season, when Niemann made his big-league debut in an early season cameo filling in for injured Matt Garza and a trio of September relief appearances, he knows that he will start every five games (at least until David Price is ready), allowing him to get into a routine and a rhythm.

"Last year I was a little more nervous probably; this year I'm a lot more excited," Niemann said.

Manager Joe Maddon said he can tell by how Niemann carried himself in spring training and how he handled himself this week that he is more comfortable.

"He had a good camp, his conversations around here, the interaction, is a lot easier for him. I can see that," Maddon said. "I think we're getting that sense of belonging out of him right now, which is a good thing. …

"He's been waiting for this moment, he earned it, and he's ready to go out there and do something about it. I'm real eager to see him pitch. I think he's going to do just fine."

Evan almighty: With the first of his two homers, 3B Evan Longoria became the second player in major-league history to have an RBI in his team's first four games of the season after winning a rookie of the year award. Bob Allison knocked in a run in Washington's first seven games of the 1960 season, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

Longoria also homered in three straight regular-season games for the third time in his short career and had his fourth multihomer game (third with two homers).

Upton on track: CF B.J. Upton was 1-for-3 with a walk as the DH for Class A Charlotte on Friday (facing rehabbing Twins starter Scott Baker) and was caught stealing twice in the second of three scheduled rehab appearances. He is scheduled to play the full game in centerfield tonight and remains on track to rejoin the Rays on Monday.

"There's nothing to indicate he will not be there," Maddon said.

Upton had offseason left shoulder surgery, though Maddon said they are more concerned now that his legs are in game shape. Upton is expected to go right to the top of lineup and play centerfield, though Maddon said he might give him occasional rest early on.

Pitching in: It was good for new relievers LHP Brian Shouse and RHP Joe Nelson to get key outs in the eighth inning Thursday. But just getting them in the pressure-packed game at Fenway Park was important for the whole bullpen, Maddon said.

"Nellie needed to get that kind of an inning under his belt in Boston, and so did Shousey, and they did," he said. "They did a wonderful job. And that permits us to grow as a team by pitching them in that situation and them doing well. I keep talking that I want to bounce back and forth, and I don't want to just wear a couple guys out, particularly at the beginning of the season."

Spit ballin': Rays starters James Shields and Garza were both called for putting their hand to their mouth while on the dirt of the mound, and assessed a one-ball penalty, during the season-opening series in Boston.

Although Garza claimed he was merely wiping his mouth. Maddon said the Rays were wrong. "It's the right call," he said. "I'm not concerned; we just have to get off the dirt."

Minor matters: Price's season debut was rained out Friday in Durham, and he now is scheduled for today, facing Norfolk and top position prospect C Matt Wieters. … SS Tim Beckham, the top 2008 draft pick, homered for Bowling Green on Thursday in his first full-season Class A game. … The Stone Crabs drew 7,116 for Thursday's first-ever game at Charlotte Sports Park.

Tampa Bay Rays' Jeff Niemann more comfortable before first start 04/10/09 [Last modified: Saturday, April 11, 2009 12:09am]

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