ST. PETERSBURG — Rookie right-hander Jeff Niemann has realized that there's a "very fine line between success and failure" in the big leagues.
The rough five-year road from a touted first-round pick to the Rays' fifth starter taught him that. So did his past two starts, when Niemann went from dazzling in a complete-game two-hitter to struggling in a 32/3-inning outing.
And as Niemann prepared for his start in Colorado tonight, he was reminded of another tantalizingly thin line — "the pitch-off," as he calls it — between himself and right-hander Jason Hammel on the final day of spring training. After a final audition in Port Charlotte and a couple of hours of waiting, Niemann, 26, made his first opening day roster, and Hammel was traded to the Rockies.
The friends will see each other this week for the first time since Niemann said they waited together for "what felt like forever" in the clubhouse cafeteria, eating sandwiches and cracking jokes.
"It was one of those 'If you don't laugh you might cry' kind of things; just keep it loose, and whatever happens, both of us would hopefully be in the majors."
Both have made it, with Niemann saying he finally feels like he "belongs," impressing the Rays by tying for the staff lead with five wins. The 6-foot-9 Texan has showed some inconsistency, but pitching coach Jim Hickey said he's also "shown the ability to be a very productive, if not dominant, pitcher at this level."
"I think he's in the perfect place at the perfect time," Hickey said. "He's been through a lot, been the No. 1, been down in the dumps, he's been there as other guys were promoted to the major leagues, and he's probably scratching his head wondering if he's ever going to get that chance. Now here he is, and rightfully so. He earned the spot."
Niemann's transition hasn't been seamless. He said in the beginning, "everything was new, and I wasn't really comfortable in the clubhouse or anything."
The first inning of his first start in Baltimore on April 11 didn't help, either. That's when he gave up five runs in the first (including a grand slam). But what impressed the Rays most is that he battled back, settling down to go 51/3 innings.
"It could have been very demoralizing," Hickey said. "It could have been the beginning of the end to a young guy's career. But he bounced back."
Niemann has done that a lot in his career, rebounding from injuries in the minors (including shoulder surgery in October 2005). The surgery changed him a little as a pitcher, as Niemann said "you almost have to relearn everything." He didn't have as good a feel for his slider afterward, so he worked on his curve, which is now one of his best pitches. "I still feel like I'm just now kind of coming around to being like what I envisioned myself being," he said.
Niemann, who saw himself competing for a rotation spot a year after he was drafted fourth overall in 2004, said he would see guys drafted after him get to the big leagues and he would wonder, "When is it my turn?"
Now that Niemann is here, he's going to fight to stay.
"To have some success on the field, and get that confidence going, it's like, 'Hey, I do belong here.' I'm not just happy to be here anymore. I want to contribute now."