Rays 12, Astros 2
Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon wanted his choice for a No. 5 starter to be a tough one. He's getting his wish. Jeff Niemann, one of four candidates for the final spot in the rotation, pitched three innings of two-hit ball in the Rays' 12-2 victory over the Houston Astros on Tuesday. The 6-foot-9 right-hander is 2-0 with a 1.80 ERA in five innings this spring covering two starts. "Another good outing," Maddon said. "All these guys are going out there and throwing the ball really, really well. Jeff was good again." Houston starter Brandon Backe was hit hard for four runs in two innings. He gave up three hits and three walks. He also struck out three. Niemann, who made two starts for the Rays last April when Matt Garza was on the disabled list, is competing with Jason Hammel, Mitch Talbot and David Price for the last spot in the rotation. Hammel has started 28 games in the majors, including five last April when he replaced Scott Kazmir in the rotation. He was moved to the bullpen when Kazmir returned and made 35 relief appearances but was not included on the postseason rosters. Talbot, a September callup last year, made two relief appearances and one start. Price, the first overall pick in the 2007 draft, reached the majors last season during his first year of pro ball. He made one start and pitched out of the bullpen four times in September. The left-hander recorded his first big league win and save during the American League championship series. Maddon, though, has indicated Price will start the year at Triple-A Durham. Niemann, who like Hammel, is out of options, could find himself in the bullpen if he doesn't make the rotation. "I got to experience both aspects (starting and relieving), and I enjoyed both of them," Niemann said. "I want to get out there and pitch, and whatever I need to do that I'm willing to do. I enjoyed doing both, and I think I can be successful doing both." Niemann, selected fourth overall in the 2004 draft, has been to Rays spring training in each of the past four years. But this is the first time he thinks he has a chance to make the opening day roster. "Realistically, yeah," he said. "I always had that mind-set coming in, but it's not been that way in the past. There were people ahead of me for reasons whatever. This year it's kind of a do-or-die situation. I'm staying with the same mind-set I've had every spring. I come in and throw well every year, so I'm just going to do the same thing this year, not change a thing." Notes: Maddon has held his major league starting pitchers out of the first seven exhibition games. That will change Saturday when the Rays host the Red Sox. Maddon said he will name his spring training rotation before Wednesday's exhibition game with the Puerto Rican national team First baseman Carlos Pena, who has yet to play a game because of surgery in January to repair two small tears in his lower abdominal muscle, is scheduled to start Friday when the Rays play the Pirates in Bradenton.