Notes: Niemann has mixed results

Notes: Niemann has mixed results

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Jeff Niemann has come a long way in the past two years. He went from being relegated to off-field exercises during Spring Training in 2006 after right shoulder surgery, to an All-Star Futures Game starter who worked 25 games for Triple-A Durham in 2007.

The 6-foot-9 righty hopes to break camp with the Rays in 2008, and he began down that road on Sunday when he took the mound for Tampa Bay for his first Grapefruit League game of the season.

"I want a job," Niemann said. "I want a spot in the rotation along with everyone else who's in the running for that. My shoulder's better this year, I'm more calm and collected. ... I'm taking steps in the right direction for sure."

Niemann had mixed results due in part, he said, to the crowd and atmosphere, and maybe also in part to the fact that, with a number of solid starters already, he's got to really impress someone to be a Rays regular. He allowed one hit in the only inning he pitched during the Rays' 7-5 win over the Pirates, fanned one and walked one. Niemann was encouraged by the final results, but unhappy he'd spent all of his allotted 33 pitches to get out of the first frame unscathed.

"Today was good and bad," Niemann said. "It was either painting black or missing by a mile. But it's OK. I know what I need to work on, and I did it today, but I'll try to be more consistent with it. That's the biggest thing."

Rays manager Joe Maddon agreed.

"It's his first time out and his stuff was good," Maddon said. "And his command, you see what it looks like when the ball is down -- they don't get good swings.

"We just have to have him pitch more consistently down and then elevate when he wants to. That's the point we have to get to."

Kaz moving along: Scott Kazmir's left elbow has progressed enough to try some simulated pitching, which he began on Sunday. The Rays' ace will work out with a baseball in a sock to mimic the throwing motion and be re-evaluated in two or three days. If all goes well, he will begin to play catch again.

The next step afterward is a bullpen session, but Maddon warned the Rays won't move too far, too fast.

"Before, it was just about getting rid of the inflammation," Maddon said. "Now, we're about getting his arm moving as though it were throwing a baseball again."

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Sign 'em up: Center fielder B.J. Upton's contract was renewed on Sunday, which officially placed all Rays on the 40-man roster under contract for the 2008 season. In return, Upton tore up the basepaths.

The 23-year-old legged out double on a short popup to left to lead off the game, but was picked off at second to end the inning. He responded with a triple in his next at-bat, and finished the day 2-for-2 with a walk, a stolen base and two RBIs.

Price update: 2007 No. 1 overall Draft pick David Price threw 40 pitches off of the mound in St. Petersburg on Sunday morning. The session took eight minutes, and he reported no discomfort afterward. It was the first test the 22-year-old lefty has taken since he missed Tuesday's turn in the rotation with tightness in his pitching shoulder.

Hey, watch it!: Sunday's game was stopped for several minutes in the top of the second inning after Jonny Gomes stole third. The right fielder slid around Doug Mientkiewicz's tag and came up with a bloody nose after Mientkiewicz appeared to inadvertently clip the bridge of Gomes' nose with his spike. Gomes remained in the game.

In the bottom of the same frame, Rays righty Scott Munter was hit with the barrel of a bat, which broke on Kevin Thompson's groundout, but was not injured.

Rays infielder Joel Guzman then hit Pirates lefty Paul Maholm with a comebacker during an at-bat in the third. Guzman, in turn, was hit in the left hand by a John Van Benschoten pitch in the fourth.

Guzman left the game with a bruise to the left ring finger, but Maddon said he expected Guzman to be fine Monday.

Bucs pitcher Jaret Wright was struck hard square in the right forearm by a Jon Weber line drive with one out in the eighth, but shook it off and stayed in the game.

On this date: In 1996 at Al Lang Field, Tony La Russa managed his first game for the Cardinals. It was an 11-2 loss to Pittsburgh, but it in no way set the bar for his career with St. Louis. In 2006, the Tampa native joined Sparky Anderson as the only two managers to win a World Series both in the American and National Leagues. La Russa won his first World Series in 1989 with the Athletics.

Up next: The Rays will hit the road again on Monday, when they'll face the Tigers in Lakeland, Fla., at 1:05 p.m. ET. Right-hander Matt Garza will start for Tampa Bay. He'll be followed by southpaws Jake McGee and James Houser, and righties Grant Balfour, Chad Orvella and Chris Mason. Right-hander Jeremy Bonderman will start for Detroit.

Dawn Klemish is a contributor to This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.