Twins-Rays Preview


Back in the lineup, B.J. Upton appears ready to once again contribute for the Tampa Bay Rays.

Coming off a big performance in his second game of the year, Upton looks to help the Rays to a second straight victory and a series win over the Minnesota Twins on Sunday at Tropicana Field.

Coming off a 2011 season where he hit 23 home runs and drove in 81, Upton began this year on the disabled list with a lower back strain. He went 0 for 3 during his season debut in Friday's 5-4 loss to Minnesota, but was 2 for 3 and knocked in the first two runs of Tampa Bay's 4-1 victory Saturday.

"This is where I wanted to be the whole time," Upton told the Rays' official website. "Unfortunately, I had to do what I had to do to get back. But now that's all behind me. I'm ready to chip in any way I can to help this team win."

Tampa Bay (8-7) is glad to have him in the mix as it tries to improve to 5-1 at Tropicana Field and avoid losing its first home series to Minnesota since 2006.

After James Shields allowed one run over eight innings in the middle game of the set, scheduled Tampa Bay starter Jeff Niemann (0-2, 4.50 ERA) hopes his past success against the Twins will continue as he tries again for his first win of 2012.

The right-hander is 3-0 with a 2.97 ERA in five starts versus Minnesota, and lasted seven innings in each of the last three.

Niemann has not made it past the fifth in either of his two outings this season. He allowed five runs - two earned - in a 7-3 loss at Toronto on Tuesday and wasn't helped by teammate Evan Longoria, who became the seventh player in Rays history to make three errors in a game.

It's the third time in four years he's started 0-2.

"I need to do a better job," said Niemann, who allowed homers for two of the three hits the Blue Jays had off him.

While Niemann's teammates have contributed to his lack of early positive results, Twins scheduled starter Francisco Liriano's struggles have been almost entirely self-inflicted.

Liriano (0-2, 11.91) has allowed five earned runs in each of his first three starts and hasn't lasted past the fifth inning in any of those outings. He gave up seven hits and four walks in 2 1-3 innings of an 8-3 loss at Yankee Stadium on Tuesday.

"Nothing is bothering me. I'm 100 percent healthy,'' said Liriano, who has walked nine and struck out eight in 2012. "I'm just missing my spots and pitching behind the count and you get hurt."

The left-hander is 2-2 with a 4.43 ERA in seven starts versus Tampa Bay, but he gave up 12 runs, 12 hits and eight walks in 7 1-3 innings while going 0-1 in two starts against the Rays in 2011.

Twins star Joe Mauer went 2 for 4 on Saturday to raise his average to .446 (33 of 74) in 19 career games at Tropicana Field. He is 2 for 6 against Niemann.