ST. PETERSBURG -- Jeff Niemann started Sunday's game, but he left after five innings and 70 pitches due to back stiffness, which cast a slight doubt on whether he would make his scheduled start Saturday against the Yankees.

Those doubts were erased Thursday when the 6-foot-9 right-hander threw a bullpen session during the Rays' workout and all went well. He threw more than 40 pitches and used all of his pitches while doing so.

"I felt pretty good about what we did over the break and the last day of treatment here," Niemann said. "It was already feeling better. It was very encouraging to go out there and throw well."

Thursday's session offered Niemann a little peace of mind.

"I feel fortunate that we caught it at the right time," Niemann said. "I think we did the right thing by coming out. It was the right move, not that I wanted that to happen. But it was smart."

Rays prepare for emotional series ahead

ST. PETERSBURG -- Straight ahead for the Rays is a date with the Yankees on Friday night in New York for the first game of what should be an emotionally charged three-game series.

Not only will the series pit baseball's two best teams against each other, but also it will be the first game since longtime Yankees announcer Bob Sheppard and team owner George Steinbrenner died.

When asked how his team will deal with all of the emotion at Yankee Stadium, Rays manager Joe Maddon said simply, "It's really all about the Yankees."

"From our perspective, we respect the Yankees and Mr. Steinbrenner and his legacy, obviously," Maddon said. "But I'm sure it's going to be a lot more emotional for them."

Maddon never met Steinbrenner, but he noted that the part of his life that most intrigued him was Steinbrenner's philanthropic side.

"Everybody wants to talk about the baseball side, which is obvious, the fact that they've done really well over the last 35 or 40 years," Maddon said. "But the philanthropic side of this man is what's really intriguing to me. That's the part I'd like to see more about, because the only thing that's been publicized [is the Yankees and baseball stuff].

"But all the stuff he's done for the people in this area or who knows, internationally, that's the part that's interesting to me. I'm looking forward to reading more about that as it's unveiled."

Maddon spoke to the team for about 15 minutes at Thursday afternoon's workout.

"I just told them it's going to be a wild weekend," Maddon said. "I really believe we're able to handle that moment. I just talked to them about the stuff I wanted to based on the first half, moving into the second half, not so much about being worried about the events at Yankee Stadium coming up.

"It's more important that we continue to play the game the way that we have. ... Of course, it's going to be an emotional weekend in a lot of respects, but we've got to go up there and have it be business as usual. And I think Mr. Steinbrenner would respect that."

The players as a whole seemed to look forward to meeting the Yankees.

Shortstop Jason Bartlett said it's enjoyable to begin the second half against the Yankees.

"They're ahead of us in the division right now," Bartlett said. "So we're going to go there and try and get some W's. If we don't, we've got a whole half to go.

"People are making it out to be a big series, and it's just a few games. It is a big series, but it's just the beginning of the second half, so we have a long way to go."

Howell optimistic for 2011 Opening Day

ST. PETERSBURG -- Rays reliever J.P. Howell has assumed a low profile since having season-ending surgery to his left shoulder in mid-May. But before Thursday afternoon's team workout at Tropicana Field, he talked to reporters for the first time since his surgery.

"I had to accept [the injury] and move on, and I had to do it quick because the more you sit and mope, it hurts more," Howell said. "So I needed to just move on and get ready for next year and the next 10 years is what I'm thinking."

The Rays have said they are optimistic Howell will be ready for the start of the 2011 season, and he echoed that sentiment.

"I'm planning on April 1," Howell said. "But, I mean, I planned to come back this year, so I'll just say when it's ready to go. There's no date set, but I'm hoping to be ready by Day 1."

Howell, who had 17 saves last season and 79 strikeouts in 66 2/3 innings, did not pitch at all for the Rays this season. During Spring Training, the Rays did not let Howell pitch while he tried to build up strength in his shoulder. But when he attempted to throw off the mound on May 17, he felt pain, which led to his surgery.

In hindsight, Howell said he has some peace knowing that he really did have a problem in his shoulder.

"No doubt, because I was confused and didn't know what was going on. And once you find out, you can move on, and that's it, you're not stuck," Howell said.