Brilliant Niemann shuts down A's
Rays win ninth consecutive game at Tropicana Field
ST. PETERSBURG -- They showed their love for the big fella on Friday night.
A standing ovation greeted Jeff Niemann when he took the mound to start the ninth inning. Since he stands 6-foot-9 and weighs 260 pounds, the crowd of 20,358 at Tropicana Field had a lot to love and had good reasons for their display.
"That was pretty cool, that was actually the first time I heard the crowd when I was out there pitching," Niemann said. "So it was neat."
Niemann had dominated the A's for eight innings at that point, then he survived a little ninth-inning turbulence en route to a complete-game six-hitter for a 6-0 Rays win.
"I thought that we just did not get to the pitcher at all tonight," Niemann said. "I mean we didn't get any runs at all."
After losing four straight to end their previous road trip to Toronto and Texas, the Rays have now won four straight, winning their past nine games they've played at Tropicana Field and giving the team a 30-13 home record this season.
Niemann now leads the team in wins with eight and shutouts with two. And according to manager Joe Maddon, the big fella also leads the team in rebounding and baseline assists. Yes, the Rays' manager was in good spirits. Why shouldn't he have been? Niemann looked like a beast.
"There's no question as Jeff continues to figure it out, the fact that he is so big and creates such a difficult angle, [he] makes it hard on the other side," Maddon said. "There's no question about that. He's probably pitching his best professional baseball right now, and he's doing it here. ... Tall guy like that ... with good stuff, the hitters just don't see that every day."
The Rays took a 1-0 lead in the first thanks to some shoddy glove work by the A's. Leadoff hitter B.J. Upton got a second life when his foul popup fell in between several A's fielders. He made the A's pay by slapping a double down the left-field line off Vin Mazzaro. Upton advanced to third when shortstop Orlando Cabrera could not handle Mazzaro's pickoff attempt at second. Carl Crawford's groundout then scored Upton.
Niemann seemed to gain confidence as the game progressed, getting ahead of the hitters on a regular basis, which allowed him to exploit the count to his favor. Matt Holliday's second at-bat personified why Niemann had success on Friday night. After getting ahead of Holliday, 1-2, in the count in the fourth, he threw a sweeping breaking pitch that the A's slugger chased for strike three.
"Strike one," said Rays catcher Dioner Navarro, when asked about Niemann's success. "That was our game plan before the game. ... He got ahead of almost everyone. He was spotting his fastball. He was using his breaking balls pretty good. But the biggest thing was strike one. It's so much different when you're ahead in the count than being behind."
Navarro felt a nice vibe about Niemann while warming him up in the bullpen before the game.
"His arm angle was pretty good. He's [6-foot-9], almost seven feet tall, he needs to get on top of that ball and that's what he did today," Navarro said. "He was throwing the ball downhill, and he was getting ahead."
Carlos Pena gave Niemann some help in the fourth, when he connected on a 2-1 Mazzaro offering and deposited the baseball into the right-field stands for his 24th home run of the season and a 2-0 Rays lead.
Ben Zobrist drew a bases-loaded walk off Mazzaro in the fifth, and Navarro scored on a wild pitch by Santiago Casilla in the sixth to put the Rays up, 4-0.
Evan Longoria got into the action in the seventh with his 17th homer of the season, his first long ball in 18 games dating back to June 17 in Denver. Pat Burrell added an RBI double to push the Rays' lead to 6-0.
"It was nice to see the big boys [Longoria, Pena and Burrell] get active tonight," Maddon said. "They're going to do that a lot come the second half of this year. Pat's really starting to get some confidence at the plate.
"You can see better at-bats overall and stronger contact. Longo was just a matter of time to get back on board, and same with Carlos. As we move into the second half of the season, I really anticipate all of those guys having good second halves."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.