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NIEMANN RETURN: BEST CASE, MID JUNE

RHP Jeff Niemann said his strained lower back is feeling better.

"Quality progress," he said.

But it could be well into June before he returns to the mound.

Niemann likely won't start playing catch for another 5-7 days, then he will be on a throwing program for about two weeks and is likely to need at least one or two rehab starts.

On that timetable, a best-case scenario would have him back in the rotation around mid June.

Niemann has been out since leaving a game May 4, and at the time manager Joe Maddon said he would miss a minimum of three weeks.

RHP Andy Sonnanstine moved from the bullpen to take Niemann's spot, but he struggled in his first start Tuesday. He will get another Sunday, with Maddon predicting improvement. If not, the Rays could look to the minor leagues, with LHP Alex Torres a possibility.

TOUCHING TRIBUTE: The Rays "retired" the radio signs of three slain St. Petersburg police officers by painting them on the back wall of the Trop - K-2 for Jeffrey Yaslowitz, S-23 for Thomas Baitinger, 143-B for David Crawford.

"To have members of the police force be killed in the line of fire is awful," Maddon said. "It's just something small we can do to honor the memory of these guys."

Members of the officers' families and Rays players participated in the brief ceremony. Yaslowitz's son, Caleb, then threw out the first pitch.

J.P. DUTY: LHP J.P. Howell came through his back-to-back rehab appearances for Triple-A Durham fine despite a rough line Thursday (2/3 inning, three hits, four runs, 24 pitches) and remains on schedule to rejoin the Rays next week.

He will make a final appearance for Durham on Monday, then likely rejoin the Rays bullpen on Thursday in Toronto.

"To this point, everything's been well and he's feeling great," Maddon said.

UPTON DOWN: CF B.J. Upton returns today from his two-game suspension, and Maddon hopes it's like he never left.

"His whole game has been elevated - offensively, defensively, his baserunning has been outstanding," Maddon said. "I told him, 'Listen, man, I know you have to sit out two days but don't lose that edge; you've been fabulous.' It's as good of a complete game as I've seen him play."

COMMAND CENTER: The Rays are looking for RHP Wade Davis, who starts today, to throw more fastballs and to throw them more accurately.

Davis is 4-2 with a 3.07 ERA in seven starts, but he hasn't been particularly sharp, walking nearly as many as he struck out (19-20), allowing 40 hits in 44 innings and lasting seven innings only twice.

"I'd like to see him get deeper into the game with better fastball command and work everything else off of that," Maddon said. "That seems to be the big issue with him right now."

BRUSHing UP: So much for the rewards of a 5-1 road trip. The Rays were on the field early Friday afternoon for an extra practice session, working on pickoff plays and, more specifically, going over bunt defenses in advance of next week's interleague series at Florida.

"I've always been amazed in baseball where you expect to do some drills in spring training and have them carry through the rest of the season," Maddon said.

MISCELLANY: INF Elliot Johnson took ground balls at first base, which he does on an occasional basis. ... The Rays started Friday with OF Ben Zobrist leading the majors in runs (31) and OF Matt Joyce atop the AL in hitting; Joyce went 2-for-2 Friday to raise his average to .369. ... OF Sam Fuld will sign autographs from 10-11 a.m. today at Tampa's Triple Play Sports Cards (2219 S Dale Mabry Highway). Prices start at $15.

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