Rays use team effort to top Twins
Niemann escapes trouble, notches second straight win
MINNEAPOLIS -- A team looking for consistency may have found some in its fifth starter.
Jeff Niemann pitched 5 2/3 solid innings, Carlos Pena had three RBIs, including his Major League-leading ninth home run, and the Rays beat the Twins, 7-1, on Monday night.
"It was a good win overall. It was a very good performance by our offense, by our defense and our pitching," said Pena, who now has 24 RBIs, tying Fred McGriff (1999) and Ty Wigginton (2006) for most RBIs by a Rays player in April.
While the offensive output is status quo for a win, it was the performance of Niemann (2-2) that impressed Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon.
Twice in the first four innings, Maddon sent pitching coach Jim Hickey out to visit the big right-hander when he was down 2-0 in a count, and both times it led to big outs. First, Niemann got Jason Kubel to fly out with two on and one out in the first inning, then he got Jose Morales to line out to second baseman Akinori Iwamura in the fourth to start a double play.
"You could see he was on the verge of keeping it together or not at a couple of big moments of the game, so I thought it was the right time to go out" Maddon said.
The first time he went out, Hickey told Niemann to trust his pitches, and the second was for a mechanical change.
"Being able to make a pitch or two can really change the game. I was able to do that today," said Niemann, who also struck out Justin Morneau and Kubel with runners at second and third in the third inning.
In his sixth Major League start, and fourth this year, Niemann allowed one run and struck out four. But he also walked four batters. He pitched four no-hit innings in his previous start before giving up a three-run homer in the fifth.
Take away the five runs he allowed in the first inning of his first start, and Niemann has allowed six earned runs in 21 1/3 innings.
"It's really been a pretty good ride for him, and he's showing some aptitude to make some adjustments, like we talked about tonight," Hickey said. "He's physically big and he's got a little bit of a quirky delivery, also with the arm action, so there's a lot of moving parts there and a lot more things that have to be maintained."
Niemann admits to feeling more comfortable and confident in all his pitches each time out. That especially is true of his breaking ball, something Maddon wanted to see more of, especially in tight situations.
"My split and curveball were there," Niemann said. "I was pitching with the fastball a lot, and it was nice to have those out pitches."
Grant Balfour, Joe Nelson, Dan Wheeler and J.P. Howell combined for 3 1/3 scoreless innings of relief. Minnesota had runners on first and second with no outs in the seventh, but right-hander Joe Nelson got three straight flyouts, the last by Morneau.
"I like Nelson against lefties a lot, as much as any left-handed reliever in this league," Maddon said.
The Rays entered the night averaging 8.4 runs in their seven wins and only two runs in their 12 losses, including just three runs in their last two games.
Tampa Bay got off to a quick start, possibly with a little help from the umpire and some help from a Minnesota fielder.
With two outs in the first inning, Evan Longoria lined a double down the left-field line that was ruled fair by third-base umpire Paul Emmel. Twins manager Ron Gardenhire protested the call to no avail. Pena followed with an RBI triple off the glove of Michael Cuddyer against the right-field baggie and scored on a sharp single from Pat Burrell for a 2-0 lead.
"I couldn't tell," Maddon said of Longoria's hit. "It's an artificial line, so you don't see any chalk kick up or anything."
Bartlett and Longoria added RBI singles in the fifth off Scott Baker (0-3).
Pena hit a two-run homer in the eighth.
"Carlos has been swinging the bat really well," Maddon said. "For the most part, he's been pretty solid all season. I wanted to give him yesterday off, hoping he'd come back really refreshed today."
Bartlett, who improved his average to .371, added a solo shot in the ninth.
"It's such a long season that everybody is going to come out of it," Bartlett said. "Everybody is going to have ups and downs, and we just started out on one."
Mike Cook is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.