ST. PETERSBURG -- Right-handers Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis will each throw a bullpen session Monday afternoon to assess their recovery from the right shoulder strains that put them on the disabled list two weeks ago.
Rays manager Joe Maddon said the side sessions will "be able to tell us a lot" regarding whether the two starters will be ready to return during the latter half of the team's West Coast trip, most likely at Anaheim. Niemann said he and Davis had been throwing since Thursday and have felt better each day.
"Everything's going well," Niemann said. "It's more just me out there working on my stuff. The arm is feeling really good. Yesterday was a really good day. I was throwing the ball and letting it go a little bit. I'm just going to try to get my stuff back and try to figure out where everything's at -- breaking stuff, offspeed [pitches] and all that, just try to fine-tune that and get back out there."
Both pitchers had MRIs that Niemann said came out "clean." They revealed slight strains, but it was nothing more serious than the original diagnosis.
"We caught it at the right time," Niemann said. "It's good we caught it when we did. It was a decision made on the fact that we'd rather do it now than do it in September and keep fighting it through the rest of the season. If we take a week or two now to get things right, it's OK to do that and be ready for the push we're going to make late in the season."
Niemann said he began feeling the pain the day after his previous start on Aug. 3 against Minnesota. The right-hander said it felt "extra sore," and he realized after the pain lingered on a few days that it was more than just the usual day-after soreness.
While nothing can be determined for sure until after the bullpen sessions on Monday, Niemann said he and Davis were still hoping to get back in the rotation on back-to-back days in Anaheim.
"That's what we're shooting for," Niemann said. "It's going to depend on tomorrow. Tomorrow's the only thing set in stone."
Pena nearing return; Balfour improving
ST. PETERSBURG -- Rays manager Joe Maddon had more positive news regarding two players on the disabled list, with one likely to return this week and another hoping to return in September.
Carlos Pena, out since Aug. 1 with a right plantar fascia sprain, will make a rehab start for Class A Charlotte on Sunday at 5:30 p.m. ET, batting leadoff and taking three at-bats while playing first base. If all goes well, Maddon said Pena will be back in Tampa Bay's lineup Monday night against Texas and left-hander Cliff Lee.
"We'll see how it all plays out tonight," Maddon said. "I just want to see how he feels tomorrow. There might be some residual soreness, I don't know, we'll find out. But when I talked to him yesterday, he was pretty confident."
Maddon said right-handed reliever Grant Balfour is "doing well" in his recovery from the intercostal (rib) strain that has had him on the disabled list since July 29 after suffering a bizarre injury while playfully wrestling with pitching coach Jim Hickey.
Maddon added that head athletic trainer Ron Porterfield was encouraged by his progress and could see Balfour providing the Rays' bullpen with a boost in September, though it will likely take the full six weeks to recover. Balfour has been with the team, hanging out in the clubhouse and sitting in the dugout during games.
"I talked to Grant, and he was moving around," Maddon said. "He said just coming out and sitting on the bench, he felt a whole lot better as opposed to early on. He's making progress."
Shoppach makes statement with bat
ST. PETERSBURG -- While there was no doubt about how important Kelly Shoppach's grand slam during Saturday night's 7-3 win over the Orioles was for the Rays' offense, it also was an encouraging sign for Shoppach.
Batting just .209 on the year, Shoppach has struggled all season to get back in the swing of things following right knee surgery on April 19. Shoppach said he was encouraged by the strides he made as a hitter during Spring Training, and Rays manager Joe Maddon thought the catcher was going to have a good year at the plate.
But with the nearly two months he spent on the disabled list, and the fact that he was brought to Tampa Bay primarily to face left-handed pitchers, Shoppach didn't have the luxury of easing his way into the season. But the multihomer performance Saturday night was an impressive display of the right-handed power hitter Shoppach can be.
"When everyone else is in midseason form and you're back at Day 1 of Spring Training -- it's definitely been tough," Shoppach said Saturday night. "In no way, shape or form am I saying I'm out of the woods here. I'm still going to continue to work hard and continue to do everything that I can to help be a productive member of the offense.
"I've been working hard. There's no doubt about it. I've been working to help this team produce when I have a chance to be back there behind the plate, to be on the offensive side as well. Obviously, it's a great day for me, encouragement-wise."
Maddon added that Shoppach's situation has been made even more difficult by the lower number of left-handers the Rays have faced since Shoppach returned from the disabled list. The catcher is batting over .300 with an on-base percentage over .450 against lefties this year, though his hitting numbers have been lowered by his .135 batting average against right-handers -- something Maddon said he's had to do simply to keep John Jaso from catching too many games in a row.
"It seems like since he's been back, we haven't seen as many consecutive left-handers. When he was down, we were seeing all these lefties," Maddon said. "That's what he is -- he hits lefties well. We haven't had a chance to really spot him as much."
Adam Berry is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.