The Red Sox didn't exactly bring their Opening Day lineup north from Fort Myers on Friday, but there were enough legitimate major-leaguers atop the lineup to give Jeff Niemann the taste he wanted.
Six of the seven batters the Rays starter faced could be considered established at the highest level, and Niemann had little trouble with them after surrendering a leadoff single to Jacoby Ellsbury to open the game. It's far too early to draw conclusions from anyone's performance at this stage, but Niemann appreciated the opportunity.
"I want to face the guys that we're going to be playing," he said. "That's going to give you the best measure of where you are for yourself and what you need to work on, what you need to build on and all that."
Niemann followed the Ellsbury single by retiring Jed Lowrie, Kevin Youkilis and Rocco Baldelli to close the first inning, admitting he reached back for "a little bit extra" to retire Baldelli on a fly to left.
"Had to," Niemann said with a smile.
He then handled Jason Bay, Brad Wilkerson and Dusty Brown in order in the second to wrap up his opening statement as he vies for the fifth spot in the Rays' rotation. The 26-year-old, who is out of options and could earn a bullpen job if he misses the rotation cut, certainly held serve after watching his competition work earlier in the week.
Jason Hammel pitched two scoreless innings Wednesday against Cincinnati and will start Sunday against the Blue Jays. Mitch Talbot, who starts today against the Phillies, gave up a two-run homer in mop-up duty against the Reds. David Price has yet to make an appearance.
"All of us are going out there just trying to have fun and one-up each other," Niemann said. "It's a great atmosphere to have competition, and it's going to make us all do better."
FEEL THE FLOW
A combination of measures enacted by the Rays and local officials and an earlier-arriving crowd Friday essentially eliminated the traffic headaches that marred the Rays' exhibition opener.
"It's just a world of difference," said Rays senior vice president Michael Kalt.
About 45 minutes after Wednesday's game, Kalt convened a meeting with Charlotte County officials and the team's parking operations company and enacted a series of changes. The two most important in easing the way Friday, in Kalt's mind, were a vast increase in the number of parking lot attendants and the decision to hold back pedestrians longer before allowing them to cross El Jobean Road.
It also helped that so many more fans arrived early and were allowed into the ballpark early, a function of the parking lots and stadium gates opening 30 minutes earlier than they did Wednesday.
"Problems are solvable," Kalt said. "That's what happens when you open a new facility, and we think it's going to be like this the rest of the spring."
PLUSES AND MINUSES
After a couple of days as a spectator, Tim Beckham made his Grapefruit League debut Friday, taking over for Jason Bartlett at shortstop.
The 19-year-old had some early jitters, making an error on the first ball hit to him that helped lead to a four-run fifth inning for the Red Sox.
"I just booted it," Beckham said. "No excuses for it - easy play."
He settled down and picked up an infield hit by hustling down the line on a chopper to third base in the seventh.
"It felt great getting back out there," said the first overall pick in last year's draft.
The highlight of this afternoon's World Series rematch with the Phillies in Clearwater figures to be Pat Burrell's first game against his longtime team, but it will also serve as a temporary farewell for two Rays.
J.P. Howell is slated to pitch an inning today and remain in Clearwater to join the U.S. team for the World Baseball Classic. Willy Aybar will get the start at second base before heading to Jupiter on Sunday for the Dominican Republic's training camp.
The game will be televised locally on the MLB Network, which is picking up the Phillies' TV feed.
A Port Charlotte record crowd of 6,629 was in attendance Friday. ... As the game was being played, a worker affixed large characters reading '09>'08, Maddon's shorthand catchphrase for this season, above the entrance to the Rays' clubhouse. ... Maddon said OF Matt Joyce (strained right calf) should be back on the field by early next week, and 1B Carlos Pena (abdominal surgery) is "not far" off. ... Charlotte Sports Park will host the MLB alumni's "Legends of Baseball" game, featuring Gaylord Perry, Jim Kaat, Bert Blyleven and more on March 21.