20,000 Rays fans showed up for free tickets to help pack the Trop for the last home game of the regular season tonight, unfortunately the Rays offense took a night off. I'm not going to say "the hangover was evident" because I'm still a bit euphoric over last night's clincher, but there will be those who will say the Rays partied a bit too hard last night and they might have a point. The Rays hitters only mustered three hits and six base runners against Kevin Millwood and co. This was arguably Millwood's best start of the year, and only his fourth win. I know, I know, wins are not an accurate gauge of a pitcher's talent, but a 5.29 ERA and a 4.97 FIP tell us that this is not a pitcher who should shut down the Rays, or ANY major league offense, for that matter.
One player who did show up tonight was Jeff Niemann. Even though he got saddled with the loss, Niemann pitched like the Big Nyquil we all came to love before his injury in early August. Tonight, Niemann cruised through six innings before running into trouble in the seventh. The Orioles scored two runs thanks to a Felix Pie triple that plated Nick Markakis and Adam Jones. Pie's triple was a mistake by Niemann--a high, flat, slider--that was twisted over Matt Joyce's head in right. Despite the rough seventh, Niemann only threw 84 pitches and generated swinging strikes (10.7%).
Just from the eye-test, Niemann's fastball had good movement and his splitter looked filthy. He only threw the split a handful of times, but when he did there was more bottom-dropping than a Mystikal video. If the packed house at the Trop could take anything away from this loss, it was that Niemann still has something in the tank. No, the Orioles are not Rangers or Twins, but they are a team that has played well in the second half. I'm not going to bet your kid's life on it or anything, but Niemann's performance has raised my confidence in the Rays staff for the post-season. Offensively, well that's another story. The Rays might face Cliff Lee, Francisco Liriano, or CC Sabathia, but, on the bright side, no Kevin Millwood.
Javier Vazquez decided to help the Rays run at an AL East title tonight by coughing up seven runs in less than five innings against the Blue Jays. The Yankee loss keeps the Rays up by a half game and, I believe, drops the magic number to three. The Rays open up a four game series tomorrow in Kansas City when Matt Garza faces Zack Greinke and a Royals squad that just took two of three from the Twins while the Yankees go into Boston to face the Red Sox.