Relaxed Niemann delivers sharp outing

St. Petersburg Times (Florida) 
 
By: MARC TOPKIN
TIMES STAFF WRITER
 
SARASOTA — Last spring, RHP Jeff Niemann found out what it was like to be competing for a job until the final day. This spring, he’s finding out it’s a little different – and a lot more relaxing – when you have a job coming off a 13-win rookie season.

Niemann, obviously, likes that a lot better, and it showed Tuesday as he threw his full repertoire in an impressive four-inning outing in the Rays’ 8-3 win over the Orioles.

“It gives you a chance to really get out there and work on things and allows you to relax and not stress and, honestly, to get more out of it,” Niemann said.

“It seems like in years past when the high stress level is there you can’t really develop in the spring; you’ve got to come in with what you’ve got and that’s how it is. Now you can really piece it together kinda one step at a time.”

Niemann was effective, allowing two hits (one a homer by Chad Moeller) and no walks. And he was efficient, throwing just 36 pitches, not going to any two-ball counts and throwing as many as four pitches to only two batters. So good, in fact, he had to go down to the bullpen when he left the game and throw 15 more pitches to exceed his targeted 50.

“I’ll take 36 over four any day,” Niemann said.

Pitching coach Jim Hickey was impressed with what Niemann did. Manager Joe Maddon more so with how he did it: “I see a more relaxed player.”

YOUNG GUN: Top prospect RHP Jeremy Hellickson followed his dazzling major-league exhibition debut against the Yankees last week with another strong showing, facing four batters and striking them all out.

“Equally impressive,” Maddon said.

“Very impressive,” Hickey said.

“It went pretty good,” the typically understated Hellickson said. “I just needed to throw strikes and work on all of my pitches and throw them for strikes.”

DOUBLED UP: Knowing what Sean Rodriguez can do at second and Reid Brignac at shortstop, the Rays are more interested in how they play elsewhere, which could be the key factor in each one’s bid to make the team.

So Tuesday, for the second time in the first week of exhibitions, Rodriguez started at shortstop and Brignac at second. Both looked good, Rodriguez especially when he went deep in the hole to make one play and also started a double play that Brignac turned. “That’s why we wanted to do it,” Maddon said. “We know what Reid can do on that side and (Sean) showed it on both of those plays.”

Ben Zobrist, who has played exclusively at second, will start getting time in the outfield later this week.

MEDICAL MATTERS: Maddon said INF Willy Aybar’s left wrist sprain is no longer a concern, and that once the Rays are sure his legs are ready, he will start playing in games, possibly Thursday. … DH B.J. Upton got hit on the left wrist by a pickoff throw in the sixth and left the game at the end of the inning, but Maddon said he was fine and his exit was scheduled.

MISCELLANY: Sun Sports will televise 145 games and Fox Sports Florida five others, with Dewayne Staats again behind the mike, joined by Kevin Kennedy (100 games) or Brian Anderson (50). … Carlos Pena is 0-for-9 for the spring and Carl Crawford 1-for-10. 

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