For the longest time, he was chasing something that might never be found again. A part of the past. A moment in time. For too many years, Jeff Niemann was chasing the memory of the pitcher he once had been.
For that Jeff Niemann was a sight. All elbows, knees and fastballs. In the days before Tampa Bay took him with the No. 4 pick in the 2004 draft, Niemann was said to throw in the mid 90s. Sometimes 96 mph, or even 97.
But there was elbow surgery while at Rice University. And there was shoulder surgery after his first minor-league season. There were setbacks, there were too many minor-league seasons, and there were suggestions the Rays had wasted a valuable pick.
There was little to indicate he could become the pitcher taking the mound today. That is, one of the most successful starters in the American League.
Over the past 12 months, Niemann has been just a smidge shy of terrific. He is 14-2 with a 3.28 ERA, and only Roy Halladay has thrown more shutouts than his three. On one of the game's most talented staffs, Niemann has been the most consistent starter. Since the start of last season, he has the best winning percentage, the lowest ERA and the most complete games.
"You know, we have that argument all the time that if we had to win a game today, who would it be on the mound," said pitching coach Jim Hickey. "And of course, it would be (David) Price. Or it would be (James) Shields. Or it would be (Matt) Garza. But you know what? I would think you would have to pick Niemann. Just based on the fact that you know what you're going to get.
"He may not throw the two-hit shutout, but you're never going to get that start with 32/3 or 41/3 innings out of him. He's going to consistently give you the same kind of performance."
So how did he get here? How did he go from Baseball America's No. 20 prospect in 2005 to not being among the top 100 preseason prospects in 2009 to being fourth in the AL in ERA in 2010?
There was no switch that was flipped. No moment of clarity during some personal retreat. It was more of an evolution. A guy who systematically went about improving his game. A guy who learned how to focus on the mound. A guy who stopped trying to be the power pitcher who got the biggest bonus in the '04 draft.
"That's why I struggled so much in the minor leagues. I was trying every day with every pitch to prove who I was. And you can't pitch like that," Niemann said. "I wanted to prove that I was healthy again, and that I was ready for the big leagues. But it got to the point where I wasn't even really pitching. I was focusing on all of the wrong things."
The fastball is not the same. Instead of the mid 90s, Niemann throws 90-91. But the slider still has bite. And the curveball has gotten worlds better. And the splitfinger is an effective pitch. Even better, Niemann has learned how to apply it all.
"He's got so many weapons, and he commands the ball," manager Joe Maddon said. "The biggest difference that I've seen is how he's been able to handle the moment on the field better. He's got skills now that he's able to get himself out of difficult moments because he's able to gather his emotions and get back on the rubber and throw a good pitch."
Niemann beat out Jason Hammel for the fifth spot in the rotation last season, but confidence within the organization was not particularly high. And when Niemann bombed in his first start, there was already a sense of impending doom.
Part of the problem was he was so unsure of himself. On days he would pitch, he would arrive at the park too early. He threw ridiculously far and for a ridiculously long time during long-toss sessions in the outfield.
His pregame routine was so off-kilter that he was still throwing in the bullpen when the Rays were hitting in the first inning of his first start at Baltimore. A half-dozen batters into that game, Niemann had given up a grand slam.
By then, Niemann was desperate for help. More important, he was willing to listen. So Hickey got him on a new pregame routine. A more efficient conditioning program between starts.
Niemann, 27, was willing to consider any suggestions, including changing his delivery with runners on base. He began the year with a stretch delivery that took 1.7 seconds, and accordingly, teams stole 12 bases in his first nine starts. Working with Hickey, Niemann got his delivery down to about 1.3 seconds. And he gave up only 12 more stolen bases in his final 22 starts.
"That maturation within a calender year has been the most dramatic I've ever seen," Hickey said. "He's gone from a guy you're not sure is even going to be around to being the guy you want on the mound when the game is on the line."
Along the way Niemann worked with sports psychologist Ken Ravizza, who taught him how to use breathing exercises to focus pitch to pitch and who got him to stop worrying about other's perceptions.
"It was all the struggles he went through in the minor leagues that brought him to this point," Ravizza said. "He came to the realization that he had to get better if he was going to stick around. He's a very intelligent young man, and he's very receptive to new ideas. He learned to take it one pitch at a time and to make every pitch with conviction."
A won-loss record is not the most reliable indicator of a pitcher's effectiveness. It depends too much on the strength of the opponent. On the quality of the opposing pitcher. On the performance of your fielders and hitters.
But there is something to be said for a guy who seems to win more than anyone else. And for a long time, that guy has been Niemann. He was 28-4 at Rice. Even while struggling in the minors, he was 26-18. As a big-league pitcher, he is 21-8.
Tampa Bay has had a pair of three-game losing streaks this season, and Niemann has stopped both. Turns out, when the Rays need a win, he really may be their best bet.