Times Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG — RHP Jeff Niemann felt great throwing a three-inning simulated game Friday and could start a rehab assignment the middle of next week.
Niemann, out since mid May with a broken fibula in his right leg, likely would need about four minor-league starts before rejoining the rotation.
He threw 45 pitches as OF Sam Fuld and INFs Will Rhymes and Sean Rodriguez stepped in as hitters. Manager Joe Maddon said pitching coach Jim Hickey reported that Niemann was "fantastic."
"It felt good," Niemann said. "(The injury) is really less and less in my mind each day, and I'm getting to think more about what we're doing on the mound and pitching and stuff like that. It's a great transition to not worry about how you feel instead of what you're doing."
Niemann did a full warmup, and he simulated sitting between innings to replicate a real game. As well as Niemann felt during bullpen sessions, he said seeing the reactions of hitters, and how they handled his pitches, gave him a "true knowledge of where you are and what you're doing."
And, of course, some ribbing.
"A few guys hit some balls kind of hard, so they let me know," Niemann said, smiling. "But, to my credit, that was when they knew what was coming."
Niemann said he still has to build strength and stamina, but he likely would do that in a rehab assignment, working his way up to 100 pitches.
"Everything is coming along like it should," he said.
LONGOria UPDATE: 3B Evan Longoria (partially torn left hamstring) went 0-for-4 with a strikeout and a walk Friday as the DH for Triple-A Durham, the sixth game in his rehab stint.
Maddon said Longoria had felt good after Thursday's game, and it's possible he could rejoin the Rays for the Jays series next week. "It sounds encouraging," Maddon said.
WILL THE WAY: INF Will Rhymes was recalled from Durham and likely will have a bench role. Maddon said he likes Rhymes' versatility, his ability to pinch-run and pinch-hit, pointing out he could get a spot start at second base. Rhymes, in his second stint with the Rays, took the roster spot of RHP Josh Lueke, who was called up as insurance for the bullpen Wednesday but sent back down.
JOHNNY BE GOOD: Though the Indians designated Johnny Damon, 38, for assignment, it would appear unlikely Tampa Bay would re-sign the former Ray, especially considering it could have two DHs by next week (Longoria and Luke Scott, who is still on the DL). But Maddon doesn't believe Damon is done. "I would bet somebody is going to pick him up," he said.
ON THE RISE: Hard-throwing prospect RHP Alex Colome allowed two hits and four walks over six shutout innings in his first start for Durham. He struck out four. It's possible Colome, promoted after going 8-3 with a 3.48 ERA at Double-A Montgomery, could be looked at as a potential bullpen option during September callups. Maddon said Colome has "heavy velocity with good other stuff."
"This guy could be very, very special; I love his arm," Maddon said. "He's different."
MINOR MATTERS: Rookie-level Princeton finally ended its marathon, 23-inning game with Pulaski with a four-run rally to win 12-9. The teams played 18 innings Thursday, then finished Friday.
MISCELLANY: Maddon said DH Jeff Keppinger rolled his right ankle during a second-inning slide but is fine. … The Rays say the "Bark in the Park" section for Sunday's game is sold out. … INF/OF Ben Zobrist and his wife, Julianna, will be at the Trop team store from noon to 2 today ($5 includes one autograph each and a copy of Julianna's new CD, Say It Now).