DUNEDIN, Fla. — Jeff Niemann was working on his slider, part of a repertoire that he hopes will land him one of the two remaining spots in Tampa Bay’s starting rotation. For three innings Friday he was satisfied things were going well.
Then Toronto, which had pushed across single runs in the second and third innings, erupted for five hits and two runs on Niemann’s first eight pitches of the fourth en route to a 5-0 victory.
"I felt really good," Niemann said. "You didn’t exactly see the results towards the end … but everything felt really great early on, and today was really about getting the pitch count up. That was the biggest thing … and why I went out there for the fourth."
"The slider, I threw close to 10. Usually it’s less than five in a full game. I’m trying to move it around to righties and lefties and see what I can do with it. I think we had a few strikeouts with it today, so it’s coming along," he said.
Ricky Romero, the Blue Jays’ opening day pitcher, pitched four hitless innings and struck out four. Travis Snider, competing with Eric Thames for the job in left field, Toronto’s only remaining undecided position, hit his fourth spring home run.
"I thought Jeff overall had good stuff," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "He just ran out of gas. He gave up four hits to that point, then all off a sudden everything came up in the strike zone. He got hit pretty well."
"It’s hard to gauge anything right now. There are so many guys that aren’t playing and the guys that are playing are not swinging the bats well," he said. "It’s frustrating because the things we want to work on we haven’t a chance to work on — but you can’t get frustrated in spring training."
Niemann, Wade Davis and Matt Moore are in competition for the two remaining starting positions behind James Shields, David Price and Jeremy Hellickson. Maddon said he’ll wait "maybe a week or ten days down the road, and try to make the right decision."
J.P. Arencibia singled home a run in the second inning, Jose Bautista hit a sacrifice fly in the third, then successive singles by Jonathan Diaz on a bunt, Colby Rasmus, Arencibia and Snider chased Niemann.
The Rays didn’t get their first hit until Brandon Guyer bunted toward third leading off the sixth against Chad Jenkins.
Snider homered off Jhonny Nunez in the sixth.
"I think in (Snider’s) final at-bat against Nunez, who has above-average velocity, you saw him foul a ball off when he was behind and the very next pitch he was able to make an adjustment on the same type of pitch and hit the ball out of the ballpark," Blue Jays manager John Farrell said. "A year ago that might not have readily happened but it’s very encouraging to see."
NOTES: Toronto 3B Brett Lawrie left early as a precaution because of tightness in his groin. … The Rays wore yellow "Fortune Favours the Bold" T-shirts to commemorate shaving their head in a fundraiser for the Pediatric Cancer Foundation. Maddon was joined by 36 players and coaches and 34 team executives and staff, including principal owner Stuart Sternberg. … Toronto’s unbeaten streak reached 12 games. … Tampa Bay will start opening day pitcher James Shields against Pittsburgh’s Jeff Karstens Saturday at Bradenton. The Rays have split-squad games, starting Brandon Morrow against the Phillies’ Vance Worley and Drew Hutchison against the Braves’ Brandon Beachy.
Brett Lawrie left the game with tightness in his left groin. Waiting to speak with him. #bluejays#jays