Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Jeff Niemann, Rays ace

Say it with me: Jeff Niemann is the best starting pitcher on the Rays right now. Say it again, this time slowly: Jeff Niemann is the best starting pitcher on the Rays right now.  I have to pinch myself every time I think about that.  Going into the season, I never would've predicted Niemann would be doing this well halfway through the season. I didn't even think he'd be a starter. But, there he was last night...owning a Chicago White Sox team that was out for blood.

If you go through the Rays starters, they all have issues.  James Shields gives up big innings. Matt Garza can't control his emotions.  David Price is going through growing pains. And Scott Kazmir is trying to find his mechanics.  Through all of that, every fifth day, here comes Niemann. 

I hope Shields, Garza, Kazmir and Price were taking notes last night. Niemann didn't let the lack of run support get him down. He didn't walk guys. He didn't fold when the White Sox got a couple of runs. He went out there throwing first pitch strikes.  And when he had to make the really big pitch... he did, time and time again. Jeff Niemann, the fifth pitcher, has set the bar. Can the rest of the Rays stable of pitchers keep up?

Here are some things I noticed in the Rays 3-2 victory over the White Sox:

  • Ninth inning heroics.  It wasn't as dramatic as a late home run, but Pat the Bat's walk in the top of the ninth off Bobby Jenks was quite a sequence. Jason Bartlett took some heat for swinging at strike 3 against Jenks the night before with the bases loade and PtB looked like he may have learned a thing or two. He got up 3-0 in the count and took a strike.  I expected PtB to be swinging a 3-1, and apparently so did Jenks. He threw a high inside fast ball that PtB laid off and walked in the game tying run.  
  • He-who-must-not-be-named-closer.  For Rays fans, we're seeing something we haven't seen in awhile: a legitimate shut-down guy.  JP Howell has converted 4 saves of 1 run games on the road in a row. And he seems to do it effortlessly.  I wasn't nearly on the edge of my seat in the bottom of the ninth as I would have if Troy Percival was trying to shut the door.
  • Lefty murder.  Joe Maddon tried to mix up the lineup a little to offset White Sox lefty Clayton Richard. It didn't work.  Joe Dillionaire and Willy Aybar were 0-6 against Richard for the night. I'm pretty sure Carlos Pena and Carl Crawford could've done that. The Rays do get a break today.  Sox lefty starter John Danks is out because of a split on his finger.  They will start RHP Carlos Torres tonight, fresh up from Triple A.  The Rays need to welcome him to the league.
  • 1-run games.  The Rays have played some real nail-biters since the All-Star break. All 5 games have been 1 run affairs.  The offense still seems to be struggling a bit, especially early in the games.  They need to come out early against Torres and get some runs.  I'm sure James Shields would appreciate the run support.
  • AL East balance of power.  For the first time since the end of the 2006 season, the New York Yankees have earned first-place outright in the AL East.  They're hot right now and on a 5-game win streak.  Each day, the July 27th series at the Trop looms larger and larger.  Meanwhile, the Red Sox are learning what the Rays did before the break: Playing Texas in Arlington is no fun at all.
  • Scott Kazmir's cramped arm update. It appears the Kazmanian Devil will not miss a start due to arm cramp.  That is all I have to say about that.
  • 2009 Rays vs 2008 Rays.  The 2008 were 55-39 at this point last year.  Right now, they're 52-42 and 3 games behind that pace.  The 2009 Rays are going to have to keep winning to keep pace... the 2008 Rays really started taking control of the division at this point last year.  From games 95 to 136 the 2008 Rays won every series they played in.


Matty said...

Forgot to mention Niemann is now tied with the Tigers' Porcello for the rookie lead in wins. Just pure guts and guile. He's becoming fun to watch. That curve is nasty.

Gammons had some interesting notes on Baseball Tonight yesterday. He said the Indians offered Victor Martinez to the Red Sox for Clay Buchholz -- but the Red Sox won't bite. However, they're still looking for a bat and the Yankees will definitely make some kind of a move. The uphill battle will get even steeper for the Rays.

Michael Weber said...

The Red Sox have been preparing for this trade deadline since last year. I wouldn't be surprised if they make move. As for the Yankees, they're just cocky enough to believe they got what they need. Their only concern is facing the Red Sox head to head and they've only got a few games left with them.

If the Rays starters all play to their potential, they have the best 5-man rotation of all three. No moves necessary.

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