Coming into tonight, the Rays were once again tied for the division lead in the American League East. After the game tonight though, they were once again in sole possession of first place in the division since way back on June 12 thanks to the Blue Jays's 8-2 victory over New York.
The Rays sent Jeff Niemann out to pitch against a slightly healthier Twins team with Mauer in the line up. For his 22nd start of the year, it was not all that different from his 2nd start as Niemann did what we all expect him to do-be a consistent starter. Not overly dominating, but not bad, right in the middle getting the job done. 7IP 8H 3R(3ER) 2BB(1IBB) 4K. He generally relied on his two-seam(35x) and four-seam fastball(38x) against the Twins hitters with his curveball at his third pitch having it go for 11 strikes out of 13 times with 5 SwStr overall(7.46%).
Jeff was able to overcome a bit of a tough start with bloop double by Span and a high chopping single up the middle for the first run and another RBI single by Mauer in the third with 2 outs. Niemann's only real trouble came when in the top of the fifth inning when the Butera, Span, and Casilla had three consecutive bunts, exploiting both Niemann and Shoppach's fielding difficulties to set up a second and third, 1 out situation. After an intentinal walk to Mauer and a short fly out to center by Delmon Young, the most important at-bat of the night for Niemann was Kubel since there was no where to put him in a one run game.
After getting ahead 1-2, Niemann lost control of his pitches for most of the at-bat, missing up on most of the pitches, but fortunate in having Jason Kubel chasing them and fouling them off to prevent drawing a based loaded walk. After batting for 9 pitches, he was finally able to retire Kubel on a great Splitter on the outside corner to get him to pop up to third and end the threat. That would all the Twins could really do until Butera hit a solo home run in the top of the 7th to tie the game at 3-3, but Niemann would retire the remaining batters to end the inning and his night.
As far as the offense goes, there was first inning, the seventh inning, and the rest of the game. Unfortunately, the Rays are down both Pena & Zobrist from the normal line up and don't have Jaso or Joyce starting because of the LHSP, but they were able take advantage of their opportunities. Taking advantage of Duensing's rough first inning the Rays were able to get 2 on and had 2 out with S-Rod at the plate. He's unfortunately seen his playing time reduced until injuries occurred, but had himself a great game tonight. He was able to turn a 1-2 pitch and just crush it to straight centerfield for a 3R HR, and his first HR off a lefty this year. He was 1-2 with 2BBs & 0Ks on the day(and maybe he'll get to 600HRs faster).
After the first inning, Duensing was able to settle down and give way to the Twins bullpen in the 7th in a 3-3 game. After the righty, Guerrier came in, it was great to see Jaso and Matt "Ulysses" Joyce come right in to PH and have them each draw walks. This put runners on first and second with 1 out and BJ Upton at the plate. Normally this would not be a success situation for the Rays as Upton has struggled to be consistent this season, especially against RHP to a tune of .219/.298/.339, but he proved a lot of people wrong and crushed a 2-0 pitch into the left field seats. If Upton can start hitting, that's even better than making a trade.
The ninth inning was a little rough, even though Soriano was pitching with a 6-3 lead. He was able to hold the Twins down just giving up 1 UER after dropping the 3rd out from S-Rod from RF to end the inning. It seems as though he will need at least another day or two off the next couple of games to get back to full strength as he's been a big part of the team and we need him to keep steady. With no off-day in sight(The next is on the 12th) and having the team play 11 straight at home, then 3 in Toronto, there needs to be a rotation of players to help get them some extra rest going forward, especially Carl Crawford to help balance out the wear from the turf.
Notes from the game:
- Dan Johnson in his first game as a Ray, he goes 0-2 with 2BBs. Nice to have another bat with command of the strike zone.
- In addition to BJ's 3R HR in the bottom of the 7th, he had a single to right field in his previous at-bat. Always great to see him hit the ball to right field.
- The play of the game that can easily be missed reading a box score was Matt Joyce's great play in the bottom of the ninth with a runner on first and 1 out. A soft line drive from Span that just barely is over Sean Rodriguez's glove, Joyce was able to throw out Morales who had a drawn a walk at second base because he charged after the ball. If Joyce doesn't make that play, the situation is instead first and second 1 out compared to just a runner at first with 2 outs and Jim Thome at the plate being the tying run. A heads-up play that changed and saved the game.
Oh, and Brett Favre "retired" again today. So now we have FavreWatch 2010 to go with A-RodWatch 600.