Rays-Blue Jays Preview
The last time Jeff Niemann took the mound for Tampa Bay, it came more than three months ago in Toronto and ended rather abruptly.
Back from a fractured right leg, Niemann looks to help the struggling Rays avoid a third straight loss Saturday while trying to prevent the Blue Jays from matching a season high with their fourth consecutive victory.
Niemann (2-3, 3.38 ERA) last pitched May 14 when he was struck by Adam Lind's line drive in the first inning of a 7-1 loss at Toronto. The right-hander was pitching relatively well despite a losing record over six starts before that contest.
Though he posted a 6.91 ERA without a decision in four starts between Class A Charlotte and Triple-A Durham, the Rays (71-61) believe Niemann is ready to return.
"I'm just excited to be with the team again and I'm ready to go," Niemann told the Rays' official website.
He's 3-2 with a 4.91 ERA in eight starts at Rogers Centre, where he does not mind making his return.
"It might as well be the first one," Niemann said. "I don't think baseball would have it any other way."
Tampa Bay had won nine of 11 against Toronto (60-71) this season before being held to a Desmond Jennings homer in the first two of a four-game set at Rogers Centre. Jeff Keppinger added three hits and Elliot Johnson was thrown out at the plate for the final out of Friday's 2-1 defeat.
Though the Rays are very much in contention for a third straight postseason berth, they have dropped six of seven and scored nine runs over the last four - all but one coming during Wednesday's 8-4 win at Texas.
They've lost 11 of their last 12 one-run games.
"Maybe the game owes us a good September of one-run victories,'' said manager Joe Maddon, whose team is 6-20 in one-run games since May 28.
Tampa Bay could turn things around against scheduled Toronto starter Henderson Alvarez (7-11, 4.97), who is 0-3 with a 6.11 ERA against the Rays in 2012. He allowed six runs - four earned - and 11 hits in 4 2-3 innings of a 7-1 loss at Tropicana Field on Aug. 9.
Rays star Evan Longoria is 6 for 9 with three homers versus Alvarez while Jennings is 3 for 7 with two home runs against the right-hander.
Alvarez was cleared to make this start after he left in the fourth inning Monday at New York when he was hit in the shin with a line drive. His line of four runs and two homers in 3 1-3 innings of an 8-7, 11-inning win over the Yankees might have been more painful than the injury.
After ending July with two straight wins, Alvarez went 0-4 with a 7.77 ERA in five August starts.
Edwin Encarnacion and rookie Moises Sierra each homered Friday for the Blue Jays, who have won four of five since losing seven in a row.
Toronto could face former teammate Ben Francisco, who was acquired by the Rays from Houston on Friday. Francisco, who was traded by the Blue Jays to the Astros on July 20, hit .244 with two homers and seven RBIs in 58 games this season for Toronto and Houston.