Jeff Niemann is really hard to define. He’s big, but he doesn’t throw hard (although it’s been pointed out that his length and release point give his fastball three or so extra mph in effective velocity). If he only threw his two-seam fastball and his curve he would be known as a groundball machine, but his four-seam fastball and changeup get mostly fly balls and even out the ratio in his total numbers. He’s been called an innings eater, but he’s never pitched over 200 innings in his career. The most recent theory put forth is that he tires quickly and loses his effectiveness somewhere around 75 pitches. After this game, that doesn’t seem quite right, either. YES Network tried their hand with a scouting report that stated that Niemann has a major platoon split. Well, he has one so far this year, but in his career, he actually has a small reverse xFIP split. Apparently YES Network doesn’t know what they’re talking about. Surprise!
All of that is to say that I don’t really know what Niemann is, but I’m beginning to like him a lot.
To start off the game, Niemann got Jeter to take a bad swing on a high ball, but Jeter, being Jeter, was able to adjust to it and make contact, lining it sharply to Pena, who couldn’t make a play. I don’t know if it was ruled an E3 or not, but it’s a play Pena should make. Two batters later, Cano went with a decent pitch down and away and sent it out to the leftfield wall, scoring Jeter on a play at the plate. It’s pitches like this that must strike terror into the hearts of rookie hurlers coming to the bigs for the first time. Niemann didn’t do anything wrong. It was a good pitch, but Cano was just better.
After one pitch in the dirt to the next batter, Niemann regained his composure worked a long at bat to Texeira, getting out of the inning on a liner to Pena. In the next inning, Swisher and Ibanez quickly got on base, and it seemed to me that Niemann’s fastball had straightened out. Hickey came out for a chat on the mound, and I don’t know what he said, but it worked as Niems quickly struck out Russel Martin and drew poor contact from Wise and Jeter. The Yankees would never really threaten him again. Usually, when Niemann pitches well, the star is his curve. But today the curve took a back seat to his sinking, running two-seam fastball. It was a great pitch, generating whiffs, called strikes, and ground balls galore, and for me it was encouraging to see him be so effective in an unusual way.
For much of the game, though, it didn't seem that the Rays offense would be able to walk through the door Niemann had opened. Phelps was not super sharp, striking out only three Rays while walking four, but he managed to do just enough to keep a clean sheet. His two-seam fastball also looked impressive today, confounding the Rays with it's above average run. The Yankees bullpen preserved their lead until the ninth inning, when new closer David Robertson was called upon to save the 1-0 game.
Robertson features a fantastic 95 mph fastball, and a possibly better curve. He's the definition of a tough righty. And yet our much maligned Sean Rodriguez (who turned in an excellent game defensively at third base today, by the way) knocked a hard hit grounder past A-Rod on the first pitch he saw. Next, Brandon Allen was sent to pinch hit for Jose Molina (who had previously been a defensive sub for Desmond Jennings, who had pinch hit for Chris Gimenez - proving that Jennings's knee injury is not serious). Allen continued his late inning clutchness by lining a single to Swisher in right field. In his charming eagerness to do something good (and because Swisher was trying to prevent S-Rod from making it to third), Allen tried to advance to second on Swisher's throw. He barely made it, and he actually should probably have been called out as he failed to maintain contact with the base during the entirety of his slide. Please Brandon Allen, do not do that again.
Zobrist walked on four pitches, bringing up Pena in a bases loaded situation remarkably similar to the end of yesterday's game. Once again, he failed to swing at anything, and he was called out on four pitches. Luckily, this time there were two more outs. B.J. Upton knocked a flyball out to right field to sacrifice home the tying run, and Matt Joyce quickly obviated BJ's accomplishment by blasting a three run homer out to the porch in right, chasing Robertson and sending New York into a tizzy over how to possibly replace Mariano Rivera.
- On the game-winning home run, Joyce turned his ankle and fell in the batter's box. He's fine, but my heart skipped a beat at the thought of needing to replace both Joyce and Longoria in the lineup.
- Maddon used Rodney in the eighth inning, and then sent him back out there to close out the game in the ninth. He was solid as always, flashing dominant stuff and striking out two while walking none.
- Upton ended the night well with a hit, a walk, and a very important sacrifice, but he started it off poorly. In his first at bat, he got two pitches that he should have crushed, and managed to swing through both of them before popping out harmlessly. You could tell he was upset with himself in his second at bat, as he took two gigantic rips at the first two pitches, and then couldn't hold up on the third pitch, a fastball way out of the strikezone. Luckily for us, he calmed down after that.
- Luke Scott salvaged his night with a walk and a hit, but he may want to forget how it began, also. He immediately found his way to 0-2 counts the first three times he came to bat.
- Right now, the bottom of our lineup is so much worse than the top. Really, this is a pretty potent group 1-5, even without Longoria and Jennings. I'm not sure what to think of Rhymes yet (I don't want him batting 6th), but against a RHP, our 7-9 is pretty wretched. I'm not criticizing the roster construction, and I think those guys can be valuable players overall, but the offensive contrast is striking.
- Zobrist looks locked in right now. He had two hits, a walk, and two well hit line drives that were caught in the outfield.
- I watched Niemann extra closely after he got to 75 pitches in the sixth inning. Pitch 75 itself was a great changeup and part of a long at bat against Swisher that Niemann finally won. When he came back out in the seventh, it seemed that he had lost command of his curve. I'm not saying that he was tiring, and he did make it through the inning to bring his total to 102 pitches, but I don't think he was cruising in the 7th, either.