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Tight back limits Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Jeff Niemann

ST. PETERSBURG — RHP Jeff Niemann wasn't sure what was wrong Sunday, but he knew the tightness he felt in his back wasn't right.

Niemann labored through the first inning and, with the assistance of head athletic trainer Ron Porterfield and a variety of between-innings treatments, ended up pitching five. More important, he said, he hoped to be fine for his next scheduled start, Saturday in New York.

"Nothing major; just didn't want to push it," Niemann said. "It wasn't really anything big. Hopefully, it shouldn't affect me in the second half."

Niemann (7-2, 2.77) said he has never had back issues before, calling it "kind of a weird thing" that wasn't muscle-related but just "a little achiness up there."

The effect seemed obvious as Niemann threw only eight of his 70 pitches at more than 91 mph, according to mlb.com's Game Day, and allowed three first-inning runs, more than in 11 of his first 17 starts. The five innings were his fewest this year since leaving his first start after 11/3.

"There wasn't any concern," manager Joe Maddon said. "He started out a little bit tight, and that's why you saw less than Niemann early. Then he kind of started working through it, and he felt okay. But then it was getting a little more stiff on him, and I said, 'You know what? That's enough.' "

ON THE RUN: Maddon didn't initially use Jason Bartlett as a pinch-runner when Carlos Peña walked to lead off the ninth because he preferred to keep Peña's bat in the lineup if the game went extra innings.

Maddon changed his mind when the opportunity to score increased as Peña moved to third. But that didn't work out, either, as Bartlett went halfway down the line on B.J. Upton's shallow fly but decided to not go home.

Actually, there was more to it, some miscommunication with third-base coach Tom Foley.

"I wasn't sure what Foley said," Bartlett said. "He said, 'Fake it.' I thought he might have said, 'Take it.' So I went about halfway, and I was like, 'What am I doing? (CF Mickey Brantley's) at second base.' I told (Foley), next time, say yes or no so we get this right. It could have been ugly."

SHOULDERED: LF Carl Crawford acknowledged his left shoulder was "kind of sore," as he was again limited to DH duties. Maddon took a "purely precautionary, take advantage of the schedule" approach, knowing Crawford will play in Tuesday's All-Star Game. Crawford said the extra days of rest should help.

"Any free time will help the shoulder because it's kind of sore," he said. "So the more rest I get, the better."

MISCELLANY: RF Ben Zobrist joined Peña and Jose Canseco as the only Rays to walk three times in consecutive games. … Zobrist set a career high with his 18th and 19th stolen bases. … It was the Rays' fourth walkoff win this season. … Ohio native Andy Sonnanstine, who came in with a 9.93 career ERA against the Indians, got the win. … Crawford's .321 average is third best at the break in Rays history, behind Bartlett's .347 last year and Fred McGriff's .330 in 2001. … All-Stars Crawford, Evan Longoria, David Price and Rafael Soriano are excused from Thursday's Tropicana Field workout with permission to meet the team in New York on Friday.

Tight back limits Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Jeff Niemann 07/11/10 [Last modified: Monday, July 12, 2010 8:38am]

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