Tampa Bay Rays starter Jeff Niemann leaves early with back tightness

ST. PETERSBURG — Rays RHP Jeff Niemann, pulled in the fourth inning of Wednesday's loss to Toronto as a precaution due to tightness in his back, said he'll be evaluated today to determine the severity of the injury.

"It just kind of kept getting tighter and tighter … it kind of just kept gradually getting worse and worse out there," said Niemann, who gave up six hits and three runs and dropped to 1-4 with the loss. "The decision was to come out. … The big day is (today). (We'll) see where we are and go from there."

Niemann spent time on the disabled list late last season with a strained shoulder. He hasn't had the same success on the mound this spring with a 5.74 ERA. His previous start had been his best this season, holding Minnesota to two hits and one run in seven innings.

On Wednesday, his velocity was down around 90 mph — manager Joe Maddon said he prefers it in that range — and he gave up a two-run homer to Blue Jays 1B Adam Lind in the first inning.

"The back tightened up and he just did not feel like he could go back out there, so we had to do something," Maddon said. "There was no indication of that until that moment. … He gave up the home run to Lind but otherwise he was in pretty good shape."

GLAD FOR A HIT: LF Sam Fuld was mired in a 2-for-36 slump when he came up with two on and two outs in the ninth, trailing 3-1. He hit a single off the glove of Jays 2B John McDonald, bringing in a run and putting the tying run at third base for the Rays.

"I've been obviously struggling a little bit, trying to get a few hits," Fuld said. "I didn't really care how I got on. I just wanted to keep the rally going."

Fuld's batting average peaked at .396 on April 18, but it since has dropped to .264 as he has hit .155 over his past 14 games.

LINEUP SHIFT: Maddon tweaked his lineup, moving Ben Zobrist into the No. 2 hole and moving Johnny Damon down to No. 3 for the first time this season, with Evan Longoria batting cleanup in his second game back from the disabled list.

Zobrist reached base twice on a walk and a double, scoring the Rays' first run, and Damon went 2-for-4. Longoria didn't get many pitches he could hit, drilling a double off the wall in leftfield and walking twice.

MISCELLANY: In the fourth inning, Toronto announced it was scratching today's scheduled starter, Ricky Romero, due to a mild strained oblique muscle. The Jays will start rookie RHP Kyle Drabek, who has never faced the Rays. He is the son of former major-leaguer Doug Drabek. … 1B Casey Kotchman stole second base in the fifth inning, his first steal with the Rays. In 682 career games, Kotchman has just 10 steal attempts, but he has been successful on nine of them. … The announced attendance of 10,099 is the Rays' second-lowest of the season at Tropicana Field. The lowest came April 14 with 10,042 against the Twins; Tuesday's game against the Jays is now the third-lowest at 10,248.

Times staff writer Rick Stroud contributed to this report.

Tampa Bay Rays starter Jeff Niemann leaves early with back tightness 05/04/11 [Last modified: Thursday, May 5, 2011 1:00am]

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