ST. PETERSBURG -- Rays pitcher Jeff Niemann took his first significant step toward returning to the team Friday, playing catch and making 35 throws from 60 feet before the Rays' game against the Blue Jays.

Niemann has endured bad luck for almost all of 2012, beginning with a fractured lower right leg in May that sidelined him for 3 1/2 months.

In his first start off the disabled list, Niemann hurt himself again in the fourth inning of a Sept. 1 game against the Blue Jays, sustaining a strained right rotator cuff.

"Everything felt good," Niemann said about Friday's throwing session. "It's a starting place for us, and we're going to keep going from here."

Niemann said the plan in the short term was to play catch every other day then eventually every day, but he did not know when he would be able to throw off the mound.

"That's still up in the air," Niemann said about taking the mound. "We're doing everything we can every day to get as much in as we can to get to that point."

With two weeks left in the season and Tampa Bay's playoff hopes still hanging in the balance, Niemann said he's still holding out hope to pitch again this season.

"Cram it in, we've done it before," Niemann said. "We're just going to keep doing what we do and let the chips fall where they may in about two weeks."

Rays celebrate Lightning's 20th NHL anniversary

ST. PETERSBURG -- Despite the National Hockey League lockout, the Rays teamed up with the hockey team across the bay to honor the Lightning's 20-year anniversary in the NHL.

Lightning head coach Guy Boucher was on hand to throw out the first pitch, and all pregame activities were related to the celebration.

Rays manager Joe Maddon even sported a Lightning hat during his pregame news conference, but admitted that he should stick to baseball.

"I was a horrible hockey player because I never skated," Maddon said. "If I had a do-over, I wish I had skated and played some hockey because I love the game from a distance."

Maddon said that growing up in Hazleton, Pa., it was common to play basketball in the winter instead of grabbing a pair of skates and a stick because of a lack of hockey arenas.

"It just didn't happen, the ice time, etc.," Maddon said. "It's one of my regrets."

He did, however, say he has tried skating as an adult with his son, Joey. But from the sound of it, it didn't go so well.

"I'm very inept at staying on any type of rollerblades, ice skates," Maddon said. "I'm horrible."

Maddon sticks with lineup for third straight day

ST. PETERSBURG -- For the third straight day, manager Joe Maddon decided to use the same nine players in his lineup, a rare occurrence for the Rays.

The Rays, who had put together 141 different batting orders in 150 games entering Friday, won their last two games with the set, scoring 20 total runs.

"It's a good setup," Maddon said. "It's the style of pitchers we've been seeing, the lefties have been coming back on line and it looks good. I like the fact that we can score runs one through nine right now."

Maddon maintained that who he does send out will depend largely on who is pitching against Tampa Bay on a given day.

Perhaps the biggest rarity Friday was that Jose Molina was back at catcher, having only started three consecutive days once this year.

"He's been coming out of some games early, so I don't think I'm running him into the ground," said Maddon, who tends to give his catchers rest. "He's our best matchup. Plus, I just like his veteranship right now behind the plate."