Rays-Tigers Preview

The Associated Press

The Tampa Bay Rays are off to the best start in franchise history, thanks in part to a late rally that ended the Detroit Tigers' bid to remain the AL's last unbeaten team.

The Rays will try to add another victory Thursday at Comerica Park while spoiling Tigers left-hander Drew Smyly's major league debut.

Tampa Bay was stymied by Detroit ace Justin Verlander for much of Wednesday's game with one hit over eight innings. The Rays, though, scored four runs in the ninth - all charged to Verlander - to win 4-2 and hand the Tigers (4-1) their first loss.

Ben Zobrist hit the go-ahead two-run single off closer Jose Valverde after Evan Longoria singled in the tying run, helping the Rays (4-1) post the best start in their 14 years of existence.

"They are never going to give up," manager Joe Maddon said. "Say what you want about this team, but they play nine hard innings."

Tampa Bay will try to keep rolling against the 22-year-old Smyly, a second-round pick in 2010 from the University of Arkansas. The left-hander went 11-6 with a 2.07 ERA during two stops in the minors last season, striking out 130 batters and walking 36.

"I was definitely confident that I could show them that I was capable of being the guy and then it was up to them to pick who they wanted to be up there," Smyly told the Tigers' official website. "But from the first day of spring training, I was just excited to get to show everybody what I had."

He earned a spot in the rotation with a solid spring but was roughed up in a tune-up start at Triple-A Toledo on Saturday. Smyly, who had never pitched above Double-A, allowed three runs, three hits and two walks while recording just five outs.

Tampa Bay's Jeff Niemann, originally slated to pitch Wednesday, will make his season debut. The right-hander reached double-digit victories for a third consecutive season in 2011, going 11-7 with a 4.06 ERA despite missing six weeks with a strained lower back.

After returning from that injury June 20, he won seven consecutive decisions and didn't suffer a loss until Aug. 22 to Detroit. He allowed four runs over 7 1-3 innings while being outdueled by Verlander in a 5-2 home loss.

Niemann is 1-1 with a 3.54 ERA in four career starts against the Tigers and gave up two runs over seven innings during his only one at Comerica Park on Aug. 30, 2009.

"I'm anxious to go out there and get the first (start) under my belt. Keep on rolling," Niemann told the Rays' website. "They've got some guys in the middle there that can obviously do some damage. And the rest of their hitters are pretty solid. I just have to go out there and make my pitches."

Miguel Cabrera, batting .471 with three homers and nine RBIs, is 5 for 13 with two solo homers off Niemann. While Delmon Young is 6 for 14 against him and Jhonny Peralta has gone 5 for 10, Austin Jackson is 0 for 4 but enters this matchup batting .500.

Prince Fielder is coming off his first hitless game in a Detroit uniform but is still batting .333 with four RBIs.

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