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Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Jeff Niemann says back feels fine

ST. PETERSBURG — The good news for the Rays during Thursday's workout at Tropicana Field was nothing felt bad in RHP Jeff Niemann's back.

Their most consistent starter left Sunday's game after five innings due to back tightness and wasn't sure of the cause or potential impact on his scheduled Saturday start.

But Niemann had two sessions of soft-tissue work during his All-Star break trip home to Houston and said he felt fine during a 40- to 50-pitch bullpen session that included his full repertoire.

"Everything felt good," Niemann said; "very encouraging."

Manager Joe Maddon said there was no need for a backup plan.

Under the reconfigured rotation, RHP James Shields, Niemann and LHP David Price, coming off his All-Star start, will face the Yankees. RHPs Wade Davis, Matt Garza and Shields then will pitch in Baltimore.

Maddon said he remained convinced that bumping Garza, who has 10 wins, to the back of the rotation was the right move to provide him extra rest.

"It will really help him be fresh in the second half," Maddon said.

And Shields, who has lost eight of his past nine starts, said he is confident his results are going to improve.

"I feel really good," he said. "My numbers just aren't there."

UNUSUAL CIRCUMSTANCES: The Rays anticipate an emotionally charged scene at Yankee Stadium tonight given the planned tribute to owner George Steinbrenner, who died Tuesday in Tampa, as well as legendary public-address announcer Bob Sheppard, who died Sunday.

Their hope is to not get too caught up in it.

"Of course it's going to be an emotional weekend in a lot of respects, but we have to go up there business as usual," Maddon said. "And I think Mr. Steinbrenner would respect that."

THE DUDE REPORT: LHP J.P. Howell, addressing reporters for the first time since May's shoulder surgery that forced him to miss the season, said recovery is going well. He is optimistic about returning next season but doesn't know if he'll be ready at the start.

"I'm planning for April 1, but I planned to come back this year. So I'm trying to just kind of say when it's ready to go, it's going to be ready to go," he said. "There's no date set, but I'm hoping to be ready for Day 1."

STARRY-EYED: Maddon, who spent the break in Islamorada, said he was proud of how the Rays were represented in the All-Star Game, praising Price's pitching and Evan Longoria's and Carl Crawford's work at the plate. He admitted he fell asleep and missed Rafael Soriano's work in the eighth inning.

"I thought our boys looked great," Maddon said.

WORKOUT ROUTINE: All players were at the workout except the five with permission to meet the team in New York — the four All-Stars plus RHP Joaquin Benoit, who went home to the Dominican Republic — and INF Sean Rodriguez, who had a flooding incident caused by the fire alarm sprinkler system at his rented Redington Beach condo.

"Not a good start to the second half for him," said SS Jason Bartlett, who provided some assistance.

That's the same condo where Rodriguez and OF Gabe Kapler have been stung by sting rays.

MISCELLANY: DH Hank Bla­lock, designated for assignment June 30, was officially released during the break and is a free agent. … Lots of national exposure this weekend with tonight's game on MLB Network, Saturday's on Fox and Sunday's on TBS. (In the bay area, tonight's and Sunday's games will air only on Sun Sports.)

Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Jeff Niemann says back feels fine 07/15/10 [Last modified: Friday, July 16, 2010 7:51am]

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