The last time Jeff Niemann took the mound for Tampa Bay, it came more than three months ago in Toronto and ended rather abruptly.
Back from a fractured right leg, Niemann looks to help the struggling Rays avoid a third straight loss Saturday while trying to prevent the Blue Jays from matching a season high with their fourth consecutive victory.
Niemann (2-3, 3.38 ERA) last pitched May 14 when he was struck by Adam Lind 's line drive in the first inning of a 7-1 loss at Toronto. The right-hander was pitching relatively well despite a losing record over six starts before that contest.
Though he posted a 6.91 ERA without a decision in four starts between Class A Charlotte and Triple-A Durham, the Rays (71-61) believe Niemann is ready to return.
"I'm just excited to be with the team again and I'm ready to go," Niemann told the Rays' official website.
He's 3-2 with a 4.91 ERA in eight starts at Rogers Centre, where he does not mind making his return.
"It might as well be the first one," Niemann said. "I don't think baseball would have it any other way."
Tampa Bay had won nine of 11 against Toronto (60-71) this season before being held to a Desmond Jennings homer in the first two of a four-game set at Rogers Centre. Jeff Keppinger added three hits and Elliot Johnson was thrown out at the plate for the final out of Friday's 2-1 defeat.
Though the Rays are very much in contention for a third straight postseason berth, they have dropped six of seven and scored nine runs over the last four - all but one coming during Wednesday's 8-4 win at Texas.
They've lost 11 of their last 12 one-run games."Maybe the game owes us a good September of one-run victories," said manager Joe Maddon, whose team is 6-20 in one-run games since May 28.
Tampa Bay could turn things around against scheduled Toronto starter Henderson Alvarez (7-11, 4.97), who is 0-3 with a 6.11 ERA against the Rays in 2012. He allowed six runs - four earned - and 11 hits in 4 2-3 innings of a 7-1 loss at Tropicana Field on Aug. 9.
Rays star Evan Longoria is 6 for 9 with three homers versus Alvarez while Jennings is 3 for 7 with two home runs against the right-hander.
Alvarez was cleared to make this start after he left in the fourth inning Monday at New York when he was hit in the shin with a line drive. His line of four runs and two homers in 3 1-3 innings of an 8-7, 11-inning win over the Yankees might have been more painful than the injury.
After ending July with two straight wins, Alvarez went 0-4 with a 7.77 ERA in five August starts.
Toronto could face former teammate Ben Francisco , who was acquired by the Rays from Houston on Friday. Francisco, who was traded by the Blue Jays to the Astros on July 20, hit .244 with two homers and seven RBIs in 58 games this season for Toronto and Houston.
|Tampa Bay Rays|
|August 31, 2012||Sean Rodriguez||15-Day DL||Fractured right hand|
|August 28, 2012||Matt Joyce||Day-to-Day||Left game - strained left forearm|
|August 05, 2012||Ben Zobrist||Day-to-Day||Left game - upper back spasms|
|July 21, 2012||Luke Scott||15-Day DL||Right oblique strain|
|July 21, 2012||Alex Cobb||Day-to-Day||Left game - right knee contusion|
|July 21, 2012||Luke Scott||15-Day DL||Right oblique strain|
|Toronto Blue Jays|
|August 27, 2012||Henderson Alvarez||Day-to-Day||Left game - left shin contusion|
|August 27, 2012||Aaron Laffey||Day-to-Day||Left game - left calf contusion|
|August 26, 2012||Jose Bautista||15-Day DL||Left wrist inflammation|
|August 23, 2012||David Cooper||15-Day DL||Upper back soreness|
|August 22, 2012||David Cooper||Day-to-Day||Left game - jammed neck|
|August 19, 2012||David Cooper||Day-to-Day||Lower back tightness|
TORONTO (AP) -- This time it was Tampa Bay's turn to end the game with a defensive flourish.
Matt Joyce homered and had three RBIs, Ryan Roberts also connected and the Rays beat the Toronto Blue Jays 5-4 on Saturday.
For the second straight day, the game ended with the potential tying run thrown out at home plate. With two outs in the ninth inning, Colby Rasmus singled to center off Fernando Rodney . Catcher Jose Molina hauled in a high throw from B.J. Upton and blocked Omar Vizquel 's path to the plate, tagging him out to end it.
"We paid them back today," Rodney said.
When he released the ball, Upton wasn't sure whether Molina would be able to handle his high throw.
"I knew I had a pretty good line, I was hoping it wasn't too high for him," Upton said. "Luckily it wasn't. He got up a little bit. The biggest thing is he was able to block the plate."
Vizquel agreed that Molina's block was pivotal.
"I wanted to go around him," he said. "When he fell down he fell on me and I couldn't really do anything else after that."
Blue Jays manager John Farrell gave the credit to Upton.
"B.J. Upton has probably got one of the strongest throwing arms in this league," Farrell said. "It can be a little erratic at times. We forced him to throw a strike and he did."
Friday's game ended when Blue Jays rookie Moises Sierra threw out pinch-runner Elliot Johnson at home plate.
"They did it to us last night, we did it to them today," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "It feels much better when you're on this side of things."
Tampa Bay starter Jeff Niemann left in the fourth inning with tightness in his right arm, bringing an early end to his comeback from a broken right leg. Niemann said his arm stiffened up between the third and fourth.
"I just wasn't able to comfortably throw like I was in the first few innings," he said. "It's the first start back, I'm being precautionary right now. We'll see how it feels tomorrow."
Niemann had not pitched since May 14 when he left a start at Toronto after being struck by Adam Lind 's line drive.
J.P Howell got one out, Wade Davis (2-0) went 2 1-3, Jake McGee pitched the seventh, Joel Peralta got one out in the eight and Rodney got five outs for his 40th save in 42 chances.
Joyce drove in the deciding run by hitting his 15th homer, a second deck shot to right in the eighth off Brad Lincoln .
For Joyce, it was his first multihit game since Aug. 10 at Minnesota.
"It was good to see him come back in the dugout smiling," Maddon said.
Edwin Encarnacion hit a two-run homer for Toronto, his 36th, but the Blue Jays failed to extend their modest three-game winning streak.
Beaten 2-0 in Thursday's series opener, Tampa Bay lost 2-1 Friday, a game that saw two Rays runners thrown out at home plate.
This time, Tampa Bay used a four-run, bat-around third to win for just the second time in eight games. The Rays also improved to 2-11 in their past 13 one-run games.
"To come back and win today like we did is a big win for us," Upton said.
Roberts got the Rays on the board with a one-out drive to left-center, his third, off Henderson Alvarez .
Three batters later, Ben Zobrist 's double scored Jose Lobaton . Evan Longoria walked to load the bases and Joyce followed with a two-run double to center.
Alvarez (7-12) lost for the fifth time in six starts, allowing four runs and five hits in five innings. He walked four and struck out two.
Niemann appeared to be walking around the mound in discomfort after Rajai Davis flied out to begin the fourth. Manager Joe Maddon and trainer Ron Porterfield came to the mound for a brief chat, and Niemann walked back to the dugout accompanied by Porterfield.
Maddon didn't seem especially concerned about the severity of Niemann's injury.
"It's nothing awful," Maddon said. "We'll just wait and see what happens."
Niemann allowed one hit in 3 1-3 scoreless innings. He walked none and struck out four.
Howell came on and walked Rasmus, then gave up a towering homer to Encarnacion that hit off the facing of the fourth deck. Measured at 488 feet, it was the second longest home run in the majors this season. Miami's Giancarlo Stanton hit a 494 foot shot at Colorado on Aug. 17.
Encarnacion's blast snapped Howell's club record scoreless innings streak at 27 1-3.
Toronto cut it to 5-4 in the eighth when Lind drove in two runs with a bases-loaded single off Peralta. Rodney came on and walked Yorvit Torrealba to load the bases again, then struck out Kelly Johnson and Sierra.
NOTES: Rays minor league INF Will Rhymes was designated for assignment to make room for Niemann on the 40-man roster. ... After consecutive starts at 3B, Longoria was the DH Saturday. ... Tampa Bay LHP David Price (16-5) faces Toronto LHP Ricky Romero (8-12) in Sunday's series finale.