History shows that Tampa Bay Rays’ starter Jeff Niemann typically struggles as he gets deeper into games. The right-hander failed to complete six innings in any of his first five starts this season and has been given quicker-than-usual hook by skipper Joe Maddon. Still, history also shows that Niemann has the ability to spin the occasional seven or eight-inning gem. Prior to Wednesday’s game, I was hoping this would be one of those nights.
On paper, the matchup did not favor Niemann. The Yankees are a powerful and patient bunch. For a pitcher who has limited effectivness, and gets hit harder as he tires, it could have been ugly. In addition to the lineup, Yankee stadium is a haven for left-handed power bats. Despite the perceived mismatch, Niemann allowed just one run on six hits and a walk while striking out five batters in season-high seven innings of work.
After the game Maddon said Niemann was “as good as I’ve seen him in a while” noting that the 6-foot-9 pitcher was getting “bad chases” and throwing “down-angle.” The 29-year-old received 11 swings and misses while inducing 12 groundballs. He used five different pitches – including a cutter – to keep the Yankees off balance. Niemann began toying with a cutter in spring and has slowly brought it along in game action. By my count, the pitch was responsible for four outs against New York. Seven-inning outings may never be the norm for Niemann, so when they come the Rays need to make them count.
For most of the game it looked as if the strong pitching performance would go to waste. Led by temporary starter, David Phelps, four Yankees combined to shutout the Rays over the first eight innings. The offense squandered a bases-loaded situation in the first inning and left them loaded once again in the fifth.
The fifth-inning situation saw Matt Joyce at the dish with two outs facing left-handed specialist Boone Logan. Had this particular matchup occurred in the seventh inning or later, Joyce would have likely been lifted for a right-handed pinch hitter. However, with two or three more plate appearances coming, it was simply too early for Maddon to remove arguably his best hitter right now.
The non-move turned out to be huge as Joyce belted the decisive three-run home run off an ill-located fastball in the ninth inning. The lefty turned his ankle on the swing, but was able to carefully trot around the bases and remained in the game defensively. With his seventh home run of the season, the 26-year-old has 13 extra-base hits in his first 29 games.
Joyce drove in the go-ahead runs, however, it was the work of Sean Rodriguez, Brandon Allen, and B.J. Upton that tied the game. Following Rodriguez’s single off new Yankee closer David Robertson, Allen came off the bench and laced a base-hit to right field. Rodriguez showed great base-running skills by moving first-to-third which allowed Allen to advance to second base behind the throw into third. After a Ben Zobrist walk and a Carlos Pena strikeout, B.J. Upton hit the game-tying sacrifice fly to the opposite field.
It’s been a struggle for Rodriguez early on, but he’s starting to hit line drives and that usually means base hits. As long as he continues that process, the results will follow. That same thought can be applied to Upton. After reaching base twice in the game, the center fielder is hitting .309/.354/.491. At some point, he will start hitting for less average and walking a bit more, however, he has cut down the number of strikeouts early on without sacrificing the power stroke.
Locking down the game after Niemann’s exit, Fernando Rodney pitched two scoreless innings. In a non-conventional moment, Maddon went to his unofficial closer down a run in the eighth inning. Thanks in part to a shift-aided double play started by Will Rhymes, Rodney held the deficit to just one run after eight. Once his took lead in the top half of the ninth inning, he finished the Yankees off in the bottom frame to preserve the Rays’ 20th win of the season.