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04/13/08 1:36 AM ET

Rays pin hopes on rookie pitcher

Tampa Bay (5-6) vs. Baltimore (7-4), Sunday, 1:40 p.m. ET

ST. PETERSBURG -- Jeff Niemann will make his long-awaited Major League debut Sunday when the Rays try to claim their first series of the season.

Niemann, 25, has battled injuries since the Rays selected him in the first round (fourth overall) of the 2004 First Year Player Draft. But dating back to July 24, 2006, Niemann is 21-8. He made two starts at Triple-A Durham this season for a 1-1 record with a 3.27 ERA.

The 6-foot-9, 260-pound right-hander had a 1.50 ERA in four official appearances (three starts) during Spring Training, making an impression on Rays manager Joe Maddon in the process.

"I'd just like to see him do what he did during Spring Training, and that is to keep the ball down," Maddon said. "And when this guy throws the ball down in the bottom of the zone, he's very tough to dig out. He's got exceptional breaking pitches, also. He's got a curve, slider and kind of a split. All of his pitches are quality pitches.

"The biggest thing is fastball command -- getting ahead of hitters so that he can get to these other pitches. If he's got his fastball command down in the zone, I expect him to pitch well. And he's been doing that in Durham to this point."

Maddon compared the way Niemann throws to the way former Major Leaguer Chuck Finley threw.

"Fin was an absolute downhill freak and when he would get flat, that's when he would get hit," Maddon said. "But [he did well] when he maintained that downhill 6-foot-7, left-handed delivery, plus he had a split off that. And he had a real good curveball nobody spoke about. Kind of the same repertoire Niemann's got.

"I've seen it with Fin and it's very effective when you've got somebody that tall throwing it down. It's just hard to dig that thing out. They do get in trouble when they flatten out and get inside of the ball and it elevates. But any pitcher does."

Maddon expects good things from Niemann on Sunday.

"When he went down, the conversation we had in the manager's office in Al Lang was very good," Maddon said, referring to the Rays' 2008 Spring Training complex. "He got it about what he needs to do. I'm very excited about seeing him tomorrow."

Niemann looks like a short-term remedy until Scott Kazmir or Matt Garza returns to the starting rotation. But Maddon said that Niemann does have a chance to stick with the team.

"Maybe the odds aren't as good at this particular time as that," Maddon said. "You just never know. It's going to be performance based. He's about ready to be in the big leagues; it might further the competition. ... He has a shot, yes."

Pitching matchup
TB: RHP Jeff Niemann (0-0, -.-- ERA)
Niemann had nine strikeouts in 11 innings for Triple-A Durham.

BAL: LHP Brian Burres (1-0, 1.29 ERA)
Burres has an 11.37 ERA in nine career appearances against the Rays.

Rays Plays
Jae Kuk Ryu was optioned to Durham after Saturday night's game to make room for Niemann, who was recalled from Durham. ... Carlos Pena's sixth home run of the season gave him the Major League lead. ... Elliot Johnson made his first career start in the infield when he started Saturday night's game at shortstop. ... The Rays have won seven of their last 10 games against the Orioles.

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On the Internet
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•  Gameday
•  Official game notes

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Up next
• Monday: Rays (Andy Sonnanstine, 1-1, 6.00) vs. Yankees (Ian Kennedy, 0-1, 13.50), 7:10 p.m. ET
• Tuesday: Rays (Edwin Jackson, 2-0, 0.64) vs. Yankees (TBD), 7:10 p.m. ET
• Wednesday: Rays (James Shields, 1-1, 3.00) at Twins (Livan Hernandez, 3-0, 2.57), 8:10 p.m. ET

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.