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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.

Photographs by, thelastminute, turtlemom nancy , fesek, kthypryn, justinwright, sue_elias, pointnshoot, and scrapstothefuture used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.