LAKELAND — RHP Jeff Niemann used Sunday's start to break out his curveball more extensively than he had all spring.
And the reviews were impressive.
Niemann gave up just one run in 32/3 innings against Detroit, striking out six and walking none. Though the outing wasn't as long as he wanted, Niemann was pleased with how his offspeed pitches are coming along.
"It's fun to kind of bring those toys back into play," he said.
It wasn't so enjoyable for the Tigers hitters.
"I was talking to (Tigers LF Johnny) Damon in the box, and he's like, 'Geez, this guy's not giving us any chance,' " Rays C John Jaso said.
Said manager Joe Maddon: "All his pitches were working. He was very impressive."
Niemann (2.79 ERA) is comfortable throwing the curveball in many situations.
"That's something I've always liked about him, it's a pitch he can throw for strikes," Maddon said. "So when he gets behind in the count, a lot of times pitchers can't go to that pitch because they can't throw it for a strike. But he can, and that's what makes him really interesting."
TIGER TALE: Damon would still like the opportunity to play for the Rays. It was just that this year he decided the opportunity was better with the Tigers, who gave him a one-year, $8 million contract.
Damon said location was part of his decision. He wasn't particularly comfortable playing rightfield (which is all the Rays had open), and he liked the idea of "taking a year off" from the daily grind of the AL East. (Plus Detroit's Lakeland spring base allows him to commute from his Orlando-area home.) Damon also had some concern over the Rays' payroll situation.
But he sounds as if he'll be watching closely and, perhaps, eyeing the chance to replace LF Carl Crawford if he leaves via free agency.
"I knew they had some issues with what's going to happen with Crawford and (Carlos) Peña, what's going to happen with the payroll, all that stuff. I kinda felt like they had to get off to a great start, if not things could change,'' Damon said.
"I do love that organization. I probably am going to be rooting for them as soon as my playing days are over. And there's still a chance in the future.''
GAME DETAILS: OFs Justin Ruggiano and Sean Rodriguez hit two-run homers in the Rays' 9-6 loss. … Maddon said INF Willy Aybar looked good playing second and at the plate, where he was 1-for-2 with a double. … Jaso went 2-for-2 with a homer. … Rodriguez played rightfield but had no putouts.
INJURY UPDATE: Maddon said C Dioner Navarro (bruised left thumb) will play Tuesday. … OF Matt Joyce isn't likely to resume throwing at full strength for at least a week, meaning it may be the final 10 exhibition games before he can return to the outfield. Joyce has been sidelined since Thursday with a right-elbow strain — there is no nerve problem as he mentioned — and it has been feeling better. He has been able to swing with no problem.
PITCHING IN: RHP Winston Abreu has been held back after his recovery from an offseason procedure to have an aneurysm in his arm cleared, but he has been throwing again and is scheduled to make his game debut on March 22, the same day LHP J.P. Howell is set to throw.
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.