RHP Jeff Niemann is likely headed to the disabled list with the back stiffness that cut short his sixth start of the season Wednesday night, the Rays said late Thursday.
Pulled in the fourth inning of a 3-2 loss to the Blue Jays, Niemann had an MRI and was examined by Rays back specialist Tom Tolli early Thursday. Niemann said he was "still pretty sore and stiff," and manager Joe Maddon said it's unlikely "he could come back and be well all of a sudden."
The Rays catch a break in that Niemann's next turn comes up Monday, which is an off day, so Maddon has the option of skipping his spot and staying in order with the other four starters.
Alternately, or beyond that, the Rays could pull RHP Andy Sonnanstine from the bullpen or call up a pitcher from Triple-A Durham – probably either RHP Alex Cobb, who had mixed results in his major-league debut Sunday, or LHP Alex Torres. If Sonnanstine moves into the rotation, a reliever would be called up to take his place.
The back injury is a tough break for Niemann, who has struggled since returning from a DL stint last August with a shoulder strain but finally looked like his former self in a 6-1 victory at Minnesota on April 28 in which he held the Twins to one run on two hits over seven innings.
Maddon said it was clear something was wrong Wednesday.
"The velocity was down in the beginning, which I kind of like – the 89-90 (mph) that I was talking about – but then I'm seeing, like, 86, 87, which is abnormal," Maddon said. "That's' the part that concerned me."
Time for reflection
Maddon opted not to start SS Reid Brignac, saying he is pressing at the plate, and gave Sean Rodriguez a rare start there instead.
Brignac, who inherited the everyday shortstop job when the Rays traded Jason Bartlett to San Diego during the offseason, is hitting .212 with four RBIs. He hasn't had an extra-base hit in 32 games, the longest such streak in Rays history.
Maddon said he won't be in the lineup tonight at Baltimore, either, because the Rays face LHP Zach Britton, but he'll likely start Saturday and Sunday.
"I think the offensive side of things is really getting to him, and I've asked him to back off," Maddon said.
Rodriguez entered the game hitting .088 against right-handed pitching but doubled off RHP Kyle Drabek and scored the Rays' first run.
Not carried away
RHP James Shields, who'll start tonight in the first game of a three-game series at Baltimore, said perspective keeps him from getting too carried away about his outstanding start to 2011.
Through five starts, Shields (2-1) has lowered his ERA from a career-high 5.18 to 2.14. He has thrown two complete games, including a four-hit shutout, and in his most recent start he tied a club record for most consecutive scoreless innings at 21.
The Rays are 5-1 in his starts despite scoring only nine runs in his 461/3 innings of work.
"I'm definitely excited," Shields said. "I'm pitching to my capability right now. I think the workouts I did in the offseason and the work I did in spring training (are responsible for) what I'm doing now, and it's gratifying to see the results.
"But it's a long season, and I've been in the big leagues long enough to know that over 162 games, there will be some ups and downs and some times when I get hit."
CF B.J. Upton said he had not heard from MLB about his ejection Wednesday night by umpire Chad Fairchild for tossing his helmet and batting gloves after a ninth-inning third-strike call. … DH Johnny Damon went 2-for-4 with a double and an RBI and moved past Steve Garvey into 75th place on the career hit list with 2,600. ... Go figure: The Rays have scored 55 runs (2.9 per game) in their 19 home games and 73 (6.1 per game) in their 12 road games. … INF Felipe Lopez, who was designated for assignment when 3B Evan Longoria came off the DL on Tuesday, cleared waivers and accepted an assignment to Durham.