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Niemann, Davis on pitching assignments to start 2012

From the moment Spring Training began, Drew Smyly wanted to prove what he was capable of doing on a Major League mound. For Rays right-hander Jeff Niemann, it was more about reminding the Rays what he can do.

Both pitchers won a role in their respective rotations, and they'll make their 2012 debuts Thursday afternoon at Comerica Park in the series finale between the Tigers and Rays.

Smyly, making his Major League debut, earned a spot as Detroit's fifth starter despite not being on the 40-man roster and having the least experience in pro ball. He had a 7-3 record with a 2.45 ERA in 14 starts for Class A Lakeland last season, then went on to post a 4-3 record and 1.18 ERA in eight appearances (seven starts) for Double-A Erie.

His only outing above the Double-A level came with Triple-A Toledo in a tuneup start Sunday, when he yielded three earned runs over 1 1/3 innings. But he recorded a 4.00 ERA over five spring appearances and pitched well enough to earn his spot in the Tigers' Opening Day rotation.

"I wouldn't say [I was] confident that I would be the guy," Smyly said last week, "but 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."

Niemann, meanwhile, beat out fellow right-hander Wade Davis for his spot. There's no doubt Niemann is capable of being a dominant starter when he's at his peak, as he's shown over three seasons in Tampa Bay's rotation. He posted an 11-7 record, 4.06 ERA and 1.24 WHIP in 23 starts last season, posting the best strikeout-to-walk ratio of his career.

With Davis and several top pitching prospects waiting in the wings, Niemann is eager to prove that he deserves to keep the spot he earned this spring. But he'll face a tough first test in Detroit's loaded lineup.

"I'm anxious to go out there and get the first one under my belt. Keep on rolling," Niemann said. "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."

Niemann was slowed by a blister on his right middle finger toward the end of Spring Training, but he said Wednesday that it won't affect him heading into his first start. If anything, Niemann said, it will help that he's pitching in the chillier Detroit weather.

"It's normal. ... I think being in the cold is actually going to help, because I won't get as sweaty," he said. "It's not going to create the softness in the skin, so it's going to be dry. Everything should be OK."

Rays: Hellickson OK after being hit in head
• Jeremy Hellickson was hit in the head in the Rays' bullpen during Tigers' batting practice Wednesday morning at Comerica Park, but the right-hander returned to the visitors' clubhouse by the end of the game and said he felt fine after undergoing tests at a local hospital.

Hellickson remained conscious, wasn't bleeding and was responsive to questions after being struck just above his left eyebrow. He said after Wednesday's game that he plans to make his scheduled start Saturday at Fenway Park.

"He could have walked off," pitching coach Jim Hickey said. "He was coherent and never lost consciousness."

• Fernando Rodney recorded his third save of the season in Wednesday's 4-2 comeback win, throwing a perfect ninth inning and sitting down the heart of the Tigers' lineup. Rodney also picked up a win in last Friday's season opener.

Manager Joe Maddon has declined to name a closer, and he didn't officially give the title to Kyle Farnsworth after he saved 25 games last year. But Rodney, who signed with the Rays this offseason, has filled Farnsworth's shoes surprisingly well, finishing off all four of Tampa Bay's wins.

Tigers: Martinez could return by end of season
• Victor Martinez's scheduled reconstructive surgery on his torn ACL was called off, and the Tigers slugger instead underwent a more minor procedure to help the healing process, meaning Martinez might be back on the field at some point this year.

Martinez previously underwent microfracture surgery on the knee in January to repair some of the damage, but the reconstructive surgery was canceled because the doctor found that Martinez's knee had already healed to the point where he no longer required the operation.

"We'll know more in July when we do an MRI on [the knee]," head athletic trainer Kevin Rand said Wednesday morning. "It is a better-case scenario. If he had to have the ACL reconstruction, he would have definitely been done for the season. This gives him a chance. When we evaluate the MRI in July, there may be a chance."

• Brandon Inge will continue his rehab assignment with Triple-A Toledo on Wednesday and Thursday by starting at second base at home against Louisville. Inge went 1-for-3 with one walk and a strikeout as the Mud Hens' designated hitter.

Worth noting
• Despite Wednesday's loss, the Tigers have still won eight of their last 10 matchups with the Rays.

• The Rays already have two ninth-inning comebacks this season -- Friday night against the Yankees and Wednesday against the Tigers. Perhaps even more impressively, they have come against Mariano Rivera and Justin Verlander.

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