MINNEAPOLIS, MN - APRIL 28: Ben Zobrist #18 of the Tampa Bay Rays hits a three-run home run while Steve Holm #27 of the Minnesota Twins defends home plate during in the sixth inning of their game on April 28, 2011 at Target Field in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Rays defeated the Twins 15-3. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

Rays, Twins Doubleheader: Ben Zobrist, Rays Pummel And Sweep Twins

Ben Zobrist and the Rays dominated in game one of the doubleheader. Can they stay hot for game two?

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Jeff Niemann, Ben Zobrist Lead Rays To 6-1 Victory; Sweep Twins

I’m not sure which player is the bigger story tonight: Jeff Niemann or Ben Zobrist. It’s probably a good thing Maddon doesn’t hand out a game ball to the star player for that game; if he did, he’d have to cut it in half tonight. Jeff Niemann pitched a no-hitter through six innings, and Ben Zobrist continued his offensive explosion from the first game of the doubleheader, going 3-4 with yet another double and homerun.

At the beginning of the game, my eyes were focused hard on Niemann, as he’d struggled his last few times out and I wanted to see if I could spot any issues. But of course, Niemann picked tonight to morph back into The Big Nyquil, shutting down the Twins and keeping them hitless for the majority of the game. While Niemann only struck out two batters and had a 5% swinging strike rate, he seemed to be locating his pitches better than he had in his previous starts. He threw 62% strikes and used his fastballs 69% of the time, mixing in some nice looking curveballs on occasion. Joe Maddon pulled Niemann after only 84 pitches, which seemed early considering how well he had pitched, but in looking at the game charts, Niemann did appear to be tiring considerably.

So is Niemann fixed? What was it that clicked for him this time that wasn’t working for him all those other times? Honestly, I have no idea. Maybe it really was a mechanical issue that was bothering him and he finally fixed it. Maybe he was locating his pitches better (although I still see lots of pitches over the heart of the plate) or mixing his pitches better (although he did throw a preponderance of fastballs). Who knows? This is one of those instances where there’s no easy answer; we’re simply going to have to accept the fact that Niemann is a better pitcher than he’d performed like earlier this season, and he was bound to bounce back sooner or later. Thankfully, it was sooner.

As for the other lead story, Ben Zobrist continued his hot hitting from the first game of the doubleheader. He went 3-4 with a double and homerun, making his line for the day an impressive 7-10 with three doubles, two homeruns, 10 RBIs, 5 runs scored, and one stolen base. That’s nearly as good a line as Hanley Ramirez’s full season stats. Woh.

I think it’s safe to say that Zorilla is back. His seven homeruns how lead the Rays, and he’s only three away from matching his season total from last year. And you know what’s even more encouraging? All three of his hits in the second game of the doubleheader (and both his homeruns) came off changeups.

Game Notes:

- Sam Fuld went 0-5 with two strikeouts in the second game of the doubleheader, making his total line for the day 0-9 with one walk and two strikeouts. This 0-fer dropped his batting average all the way down to the realm of the human (.315) and immediately started people panicking on Twitter. Relax everyone, it’s just one bad day. Fuld is more likely a .270 hitter than he is a .350 hitter, but as long as he can walk and work a good at bat, he’ll be a valuable lead-off man.

- Casey Kotchman had two hits in four at bats, adding to his strong offensive performance from the first game. Yes, I’m willing to eat crow – Kotchman has been good offensively, and here’s hoping he can keep it up. I’m willing to take offensive help from wherever we can get it.

- John Jaso flashed some power last night: he crushed a homerun to right in the fourth inning and he tacked on a double later on in the game. His stance did seem slightly different, so hopefully whatever changes he made is helping him see the ball better.

- In a bit of bad news, Sean Rodriguez dislocated his pinky finger in the eighth inning. He slid into second base, hitting his hand on the way in, and he left the game for a pinch runner. The Rays are taking a wait-and-see approach to the injury at the moment, so hopefully this doesn’t end up being something serious.

- The Rays come back to the Trop with a 13-11 record, only 1.5 games behind the Yankees for first place in the AL East. Ah, life is good.

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Rays Look To Sweep Doubleheader Against The Twins; Niemann Searches For First Win

After shellacking the Twins in the first game of today's doubleheader, the Tampa Bay Rays send Jeff Niemann to the mound against Anthony Swarzak. The game is scheduled for 8:10 PM.

Jeff Niemann (7.08 ERA, 5.30 FIP) has struggled with his mechanics so far this season, negatively affecting his command. He's having trouble hitting his spots and keeping pitches low in the zone, so batters have been able to tee up on many of his misplaced balls. As a result, Niemann is sporting a .348 BABIP and a very high ERA, and the Rays may decide to play him on the disabled list if his issues do not improve.

Due to the doubleheader, the Twins called up Anthony Swarzak from Triple-A yesterday. Swarzak is a young pitcher (24 years old), but he's struggled over the past two years in Triple-A. He is not a high strikeout pitcher (career 5 K/9 in Triple-A), so he relies on limiting walks (2.5 BB/9) and pitching to contact. He got a shot in the majors last season with the Twins, posting a 6.25 ERA and 5.71 FIP in 12 starts. He does not look like he should be a challenging pitcher for the Rays' offense, but then again, the Rays can decide to struggle against the strangest pitchers.

A win tonight would put the Rays three games above .500, the first time this season they've had a record that high. Also, it would improve Joe Maddon's managerial record with the Rays to one game above .500. Maddon hit .500 last season on September 3rd, but the Rays' late season slump caused him to finish the year slightly under. With the Rays' win earlier today, he brought his record with the Rays up to 417-417.

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Rays, Twins Doubleheader: Ben Zobrist, Rays Pummel Twins In Game 1

Following last night's blueprint, the Tampa Bay Rays (13-11) scored early, often, and late against the Minnesota Twins (9-14) today, completing their second straight blowout, 15-3. Ben Zobrist played the hero, falling one base short of the cycle while hitting 2 doubles, a homer, a single, and a Rays record 8 RBI. The slugging super-utility man now leads the team with 6 home runs and is on pace for yet another career year.

The Rays received solid contributions from all over the field. Here some highlights:

  • Jeremy Hellickson (2-2) picked up his second win, pitching 6.1 innings while being tabbed for only 3 runs. He had 3 strikeouts and 1 walk, despite not having his greatest stuff on the day.
  • Casey Kotchman had a solid day at the plate, sneaking a home run into the overhang in right field, altogether going 2 for 5. Matt Joyce also went 3 for 4, with 3 singles.
  • Johnny Damon also had a fine day at the plate, going 3 for 4 with a triple and a walk, stretching his hit streak to 15 games. Damon, B.J. Upton, and Ben Zobrist each had a steal, too, as nothing seemed capable of stopping the Rays offense.
  • Jake McGee and Adam Russell added another pair of rather quiet performances. McGee did allow hit, which caused an additional run to score on Hellickson's account.
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Rays, Twins Doubleheader: Game 1 Lineup

Nick Blackburn may be right handed, but Rays manager Joe Maddon is sending out his anti-left-handed-pitcher squad -- which includes Sean Rodriguez and Kelly Shoppach. There may be a couple reasons for the move: (1) the Rays are playing a doubleheader and may want to save their anti-RHP platoon until they face righty Anthony Swarzak at 8:00 p.m. tonight (this seems unlikely), or (2) Maddon may possibly see something in Blackburn's splits he's trying to exploit.

Over his career, Blackburn has been pretty typical, platoon splits wise -- he struggles against lefties and fares better against righties. Well, during 2010, that distinction began to even out, and this year it has become a complete reverse split. Still, it's a little too early in the year to make such adjustments, even if Blackburn appears to be using his changeup more often.

A final possibility also exists: (3) Joe Maddon may just want to test Rodriguez and Shoppach out against a non-dominant RHP. Both hitters can hit LHP rather well, but have never received a consistent shot has hitting the same hand (in his career, Shoppach has just over 700 plate appearances against right-handed pitching -- a little over a full season's worth PAs; and anything can happen in just one season).

Most likely, the unique lineup is a combination of these three factors. The lineup per TBO Rays:

Fuld LF
Damon DH
Upton CF
Joyce RF
Zoby 2B
S-Rod 3B
Shoppach C
Kotchman 1B
Brignac SS

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Rays, Twins Doubleheader: Game 1 Preview

Jeremy Hellickson will lead the Tampa Bay Rays (12-11) against Nick Blackburn and the Minnesota Twins (9-13) in today's first game of the doubleheader. Blackburn (1-3, 4.01 ERA, 4.61 FIP) will be making his 5th start of the season. He previously faced the Rays on April 15, going 6 innings despite allowing 5 earned runs.

Opposing the righty Blackburn will be the soft-tossing Jeremy Hellickson (1-2, 4.32 ERA, 4.43 FIP), coming off a 7-inning affair with the Toronto Blue Jays, where he allowed 3 runs and got a no-decision. Hellickson has filled in well in the wake of the Matt Garza trade, pitching into at least the 6th inning in each of his 4 previous starts.

Meanwhile, the Rays rebuilt bullpen, which had all but disappeared in the free agency market during the 2010 off season, has preformed admirably in the early goings. After another scoreless three appearances last night, the Rays bullpen lowered their ERA to 3.06, good for 4th best in the American League. Even with J.P. Howell still on the mend and likely to improve the bullpen, the Rays front office must be impressed with their handiwork.

Game Time: 1:10 p.m. ET
Broadcast: SunSports HD (TV) and WDAE 620 AM (Radio)

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