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TB@MIL: Niemann tosses six scoreless innings

While Friday's contest between the Rays and Astros saw Tampa Bay's Ben Zobrist facing the club that drafted him, Sunday's series finale at Minute Maid Park will also be a homecoming of sorts, this time for Rays starting pitcher Jeff Niemann.

Niemann (2-4, 4.82 ERA) grew up about 15 minutes from the Astrodome and attended college in Houston at Rice University. Niemann shared mini season passes in the "rainbow seats" of the old stadium's upper deck with his father and was at Minute Maid Park during the 2004 All-Star Game and the 2005 World Series.

Niemann gave up two runs in seven innings during his only career start at Minute Maid Park, a 4-2 Rays win last season.

"It's always fun to play in this stage in front of the hometown," Niemann said. "I grew up here, walking through the halls here, and I'm seeing all the players I watched growing up when I went in the clubhouse here. It's definitely kind of surreal. It feels like things are coming full circle."

Astros left-hander J.A. Happ (3-9, 5.33 ERA) will be charged with the task of spoiling Niemann's return to Houston by helping the Astros salvage the finale of this three-game Interleague set.

Happ, who has lost five consecutive decisions, has not pitched as many as seven innings in a start since April 15. His nine losses this year are tied for the National League lead and equal his total number of losses from 2007-2010, a stretch that included 44 starts.

Despite Happ's struggles this season, Astros manager Brad Mills said he hasn't lost confidence in him.

"I try to relay the confidence we have in him and tell him that his stuff is there," Mills said. "You want him to stay with his stuff."

"He doesn't have to do anything different. He needs to just keep pitching and not thinking too much."

Rays: Pitchers still have work to do at plate
After Wade Davis went 0-for-1 with a strikeout and two sacrifices on Saturday, Rays pitchers are now 0-for-19 at the plate this season -- the longest hitless streak of any American League pitching staff.

If nothing else, Niemann promises to go down swinging.

"I'm going to go up there and take hacks," Niemann said. "That's something I can guarantee.

"I've been getting DH'd for since I was a sophomore in high school."

Astros: Melancon an All-Star candidate
If the Astros take a lead going into the ninth on Sunday, they'll turn the ball over to closer Mark Melancon. Melancon has posted a 1.98 ERA in 37 games and has tallied six saves. Mills said Melancon, who took over for Brandon Lyon when he was injured in May, is worthy of being named a National League All-Star this season.

"The way he's thrown, the ERA he has and what he's done, I would be remiss if he's not on there," Mills said.

Worth noting
• In Friday's game, the Astros used pitchers Wandy, Fernando and Aneury Rodriguez, marking the first time since 1900 that three players with the same last name appeared in one game for the same team. To top things off, Tampa Bay started Sean Rodriguez at second base.

• In their past eight games, Tampa Bay's starters have been outstanding, giving up just nine runs over 57 1/3 innings for a 1.41 ERA.

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