March 31, 2012; Port Charlotte, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Jeff Niemann (34) talks with pitcher James Shields (33) in the dugout against the Boston Red Sox during their spring training game at Charlotte Sports Park. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE

Game 6: Niemann, Bullpen Falters as Tigers Left Smyling

Do you know the difference between James Shields and Jeff Niemann? Both don’t throw very hard and have solid command. The difference is that Shields gives the Rays everything he has even when things aren’t going well while Niemann has two modes: on and off. When Niemann is on, he may just be better than Shields. But what will unceasingly hold him back is when he’s off.

Jeff Niemann was making his season debut on Thursday afternoon as the Rays hoped to take two out of three from the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. His opponent was Tigers lefty Drew Smyly, who was making his major league debut. The Rays looked to put him away early.

Smyly’s first major league pitch was a strike, but he then missed 4 consecutive times out of the zone to walk Desmond Jennings. Carlos Pena followed with a single before Evan Longoria walked. Bases-loaded, nobody out. Jim Leyland visited Smyly on the mound to settle him down. And somehow, that changed things. Jeff Keppinger flied out too shallowly to right to score Jennings before Smyly struck out Ben Zobrist and Sean Rodriguez to escape the jam.

Carlos Pena drilled a solo home run with 1 out in the 3rd to give the Rays a 1-0 lead and Evan Longoria followed with a double. All of a sudden, the Rays looked like they were about to pull away once again. But Keppinger popped out and Ben Zobrist flied out as Smyly escaped trouble. The Rays stranded two runners in the 4th. Smyly exited after hitting Carlos Pena to begin the 5th. Reliever Collin Balester stranded two additional Rays in the 5th. Smyly worked into and out of trouble all day, going 4+ innings and allowing just the 1 run on 4 hits, striking out 4 while walking 3. He batted control problems at times as just 49 of his 90 pitches were strikes, although he was much better following the first three batters of the game as 45 of his final 74 pitches were strikes. He held the Rays to 0 for 7 with runners in scoring position.

The Rays were stranded runners left and right, but the good news was that Jeff Niemann was pitching well. Through 4 innings, Niemann had allowed no runs on just 2 hits, striking out 4 while walking none. He had thrown 69 pitches, but he was holding the mighty Tigers lineup down. But that quickly changed.

Niemann walked Alex Avila to begin the 5th after being ahead of him 1-2 before striking out Jhonny Peralta. As Peralta struck out, Avila stole second base as Niemann (and Jose Lobaton) was completely oblivious to him. Niemann then got ahead of Andy Dirks 0-2 before missing with a fastball then a curveball. Niemann then threw a slider, but he hanged it up in the zone and Dirks didn’t miss it, lacing a game-tying triple into the right field corner. Niemann followed by striking out Ryan Raburn, but then he lost Austin Jackson on 4 pitches. Jackson stole second base without a throw and then scored as birthday day Brennan Boesch blooped a single in front of Matt Joyce on a 2-0 pitch as the Tigers took a 3-1 lead. Niemann did force Miguel Cabrera to ground out to escape further trouble. Niemann lasted just 5 innings, allowing 3 runs on 4 hits and striking out 6 while walking 2. He ended up throwing 102 pitches, 33 in that 5th innings, and just 59 strikes.

The Rays finally got something else going in the 7th inning, stringing together a walk, a hit-by-pitch and after Brayan Villarreal entered the game for Detroit, an Evan Longoria RBI single on the 4th anniversary of his first major league game, to pull within 3-2. Jeff Keppinger followed with a blistering line drive, but it was right at Jhonny Peralta, who caught it and threw to second base to catch Carlos Pena off the bag. Phil Coke came in to struck out Zobrist, and another potential rally died down.

After J.P. Howell worked an easy 6th thanks to an outfield assist by Matt Joyce getting Delmon Young attempting to stretch, Wade Davis entered the game for the Rays in the 7th. He quickly got into trouble, allowing a pair of singles to begin the inning. But he forced Ryan Raburn to groundout, advancing the runners to 2nd and 3rd before Austin Jackson lined out for the 2nd out. The Rays were 1 out from escaping the jam as Jake McGee entered the game to face the lefty-swinging Brennan Boesch. But McGee allowing a 2-run single, giving the Tigers a commanding 5-2 lead, and the Tigers would add two more in the 8th off of Joel Peralta in the form of an Alex Avila RBI triple and a subsequent wild pitch as they ended up breezing to a 7-2 win. Balester (1-0) earned the win, while Niemann (0-1) took the loss.

This is what the Rays look like at their worst. Their starting pitching looks great for a while before tailing off. Their offense gets some runners on base, but can’t score anyone. Their bullpen can’t get anybody out. The Rays need to finish what they start. Their starters can’t melt down at the end of their outings. The offense can’t start rallies and come away empty-handed. And the bullpen can’t allow a close game to get away. We know the Rays are better than this. They’re 4-2 on the season. At times they’ve looked like one of the best teams in baseball and at other times you still see the inconsistency that doomed this franchise for so many years. The Rays start a 4-game set this weekend with their division rival Boston Red Sox. We know how talented this team is. It’s time for the Rays to get all the gears churning and show us Rays baseball at its best.

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Tags: Alex Avila Brennan Boesch Carlos Pena Evan Longoria Jake McGee James Shields Jeff Niemann Joel Peralta Wade Davis

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