ST. PETERSBURG — RHP Jeff Niemann needed this.
After two rough games to start the season, a third-inning hook by manager Joe Maddon his last time out and mounting questions about his ability to dominate following last season's DL stint, he needed something positive.
And with seven solid innings — allowing three runs on eight hits, walking one and fanning six, throwing 108 pitches — he felt pretty good about it.
"We definitely needed to have a good one out there," Niemann said. "And I felt like we did that and gave us a chance to come back like we always do."
Niemann said he felt good, felt comfortable with C John Jaso and felt some between-starts adjustments with pitching coach Jim Hickey worked well.
"Fastball location; that's what it always comes down to," he said. "And today we were able to put the ball in better places and make it harder for them to hit."
Maddon said he thought Niemann got better as the game progressed, getting his changeup to look more like a strike and throwing his fastball with a downhill angle.
"He's got to feel pretty good about that," Maddon said. "That's a great day's work."
Though Niemann didn't get a win, he lowered his ERA from 8.31 to 6.32. In 10 starts since coming off the disabled list in August, he is 1-7, 8.87.
J.P. DUTY: The smile on LHP J.P. Howell's face said more than the words that came out of his mouth after a sharp 34-pitch batting practice session that showed how recovered he was from the shoulder surgery that forced him to miss last season.
"I feel like I'm back," Howell said. "I feel like I could be in there tonight."
He won't actually return for about a month, as the Rays plan for him to throw batting practice again Tuesday then head out for 8-10 appearances in the minors. But it was obvious how far he had come since his last time on the Trop mound, when his session was cut short by the shoulder pain that led to the surgery.
"I'm very pleased," Howell said. "Each time it gets a little better, and I get a little more confident with everything."
GOLDEN TOUCH: Injured Evan Longoria was presented with his 2010 Gold Glove before the game, his second straight as the league's top defensive third baseman, and Maddon said it could become an annual event.
"He really takes a lot of pride in that," Maddon said. "He works hard at it. When he does something not good at third base, he beats himself up more than as an offensive player. He definitely has the chance to win that award on a pretty consistent basis."
Adrian Beltre, now with Texas, had won the previous two, and Eric Chavez, now a Yankees backup, the six before that.
MISCELLANY: LHP David Price, whose "arm sleeve" is today's giveaway, and INF Elliot Johnson will sign autographs for kids from 12-12:30 along the rightfield line. … Jaso allowed three steals and is 0-for-14 in trying to throw out runners, though it's not all his fault: Runners are 24-for-27 against Niemann since the start of 2009. … RHP Juan Cruz got his first win since May 17, 2009. … C Robinson Chirinos is off to a 2-for-30 start at Triple-A Durham.