Three days into the regular season it became an issue.
Niemann was placed on the 15-day disabled list Friday with right shoulder soreness and RHP Brandon Gomes was recalled from Triple-A Durham.
“We’ve been fighting this for a while, and this whole time we’ve always been heading in the right direction, and we’re feeling like we were doing all right,” Niemann said. “These past three days we’re just trying to stay ready and be active down there in the bullpen, and it’s really kind of set me back a few steps.”
Niemann was scheduled to see Rays team physician Koco Eaton on Friday night.
“It’s disappointing for him and for us,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I really envisioned him doing a lot of good things for us this year. He still can. Let’s see what the doctor has to say and we’ll move forward from there.”
This marks the fourth time in as many big-league seasons that Niemann has gone on the DL. In 2010, it was for a right shoulder strain. In 2011, it was for a lower back strain. In 2012, it was for a fractured right fibula. Niemann returned from that injury on Sept. 1 but missed the remainder of the season because of a sore right arm.
Niemann described the discomfort in his shoulder as “pain and overall achiness.” He said it was the result of his trying to stay “loose, stay warm” during games.
When asked when he decided it was time to alert the training staff, Niemann said, “When you’re sitting out there (in the bullpen) and when the phone rings and you’re hoping it’s not for you because you can’t throw a baseball, that’s as clear as it got for me.”
Niemann said he wasn’t sure what role the shoulder discomfort played in his velocity being down during spring training. He maintained all spring that his shoulder was fine and believed it would be once the season began. But he said preparing each day for his new role as a reliever turned the discomfort into pain.
“It’s gone south faster than I thought it could have these last few days,” he said.
Gomes had the best spring training of any of the Rays relievers, allowing only two runs in 101/3 innings. He struck out 11 and walked one.
“I felt strong mechanically. All my pitches felt good,” he said. “I don’t see any reason why I can’t continue that type of success. That mindset of attacking hitters is going to carry through for the rest of the year.”
Maddon said LHP Cesar Ramos and RHP Jamey Wright will be used in long relief during Niemann’s absence. Maddon said Gomes can fill that role, too. Unlike Niemann, Gomes can pitch on consecutive days.
“It’s not good to miss Jeffery, but to have that kind of a spare part available to us is very good,” Maddon said.
RHP Alex Cobb, who hasn’t pitched in a major league game since facing the Pirates on March 22, makes his season debut tonight.
He said he doesn’t expect the long layoff to be a factor.
“I think it will be different this year. I’ve been able to control the emotions a lot better since I’ve been up here,” Cobb said. “I’ve kind of harnessed the adrenalin and used it to my benefit, so hopefully it will be more along those lines (tonight) rather than the environment getting too fast for me, which it has been in the past, which I’ve had problems with, all pitchers have had problems with. The environment is more than you’re used to, and it gets a little more fast out there for you and you start leaving balls up and off speed starts becoming more and more flat. Hopefully, I can control those emotions (tonight) and use them to my advantage.”
C Stephen Vogt was traded Friday to Oakland for a player to be named or cash. Vogt was designated for assignment Sunday along with C Robinson Chirinos to clear room on the 40-man roster when 1B/OF Shelley Duncan and Wright were added to the major league roster.