MINNEAPOLIS — The struggling Rays needed a lift on their road trip, for one of their starting pitchers to be a stopper.
And they got just that Monday from right-hander Jeff Niemann, their fifth starter, who might be the least experienced in their rotation but has recently been one of their most consistent.
Niemann, 26, making just his sixth major-league start, in a stadium in which he had never pitched, was cool under pressure in working his way out of several jams, giving up just one run in the Rays' 7-1 win over the Twins in front of 17,988 at the Metrodome.
"When things get heated out there, to be able to make a pitch or two can really change the game," Niemann said. "I was able to do that today."
With a victory tonight or Wednesday, the Rays (8-12) would stop their streak of five series losses and gain some momentum at the end of this nine-game road trip, on which they're 3-4 so far.
"We needed this pretty big," said shortstop Jason Bartlett, who went 2-for-4 with a homer and two RBIs. "In the last series we got the first one and lost the next two. So we've got to come out and play hard."
Niemann's outing wasn't perfect, as he walked four and lasted 52/3 innings, but he gave up just three hits and offered the Rays' recently punchless bats some breathing room. Carlos Peña provided most of the pop, continuing his impressive April with his ninth homer (most in the majors) and three RBIs, helping him tie a club record with 24 RBIs in April, joining Fred McGriff in 1999 and Ty Wigginton in 2006.
Tampa Bay jumped on Twins struggling right-hander Scott Baker (0-3) from the start. Baker, who gave up seven homers in his previous two starts, got the first two outs in the first inning Monday before Evan Longoria doubled and Peña tripled. Pat Burrell added an RBI single to make it 2-0.
Niemann (2-2) escaped trouble in several spots. In the first, Niemann walked Alexi Casilla and hit Justin Morneau with a pitch before getting the next two hitters to fly out.
In the third, Niemann had runners on first and second with one out after a single and steal by Tampa Catholic product Denard Span and a walk to Casilla. But Niemann struck out Morneau and Jason Kubel to thwart the threat.
On two occasions, pitching coach Jim Hickey came out to the mound to talk to Niemann, telling him to trust his stuff. Hickey said Niemann has done well making in-game adjustments.
Niemann was pulled with two outs in the sixth after he gave up a solo homer to Joe Crede and a walk to Michael Cuddyer. He has grown more comfortable with every start, having given up just six earned runs in his past 211/3 innings since the Orioles scored five in the first inning of his debut.
"Other than that one tough inning, he's pretty much been consistent, and what he's learning to do is stay out of the big inning by being able to gather himself," manager Joe Maddon said. "That's what was able to happen tonight. Young pitchers a lot of times, their bane is the big inning."
Grant Balfour struck out former Ray Delmon Young with a runner on second in the sixth, and Joe Nelson worked his way out of a two-on, no-out situation in the seventh.
Peña helped break the game open — and send many Twins fans to the exits — in the eighth with a two-run homer, a 402-foot blast to rightfield. Bartlett added a solo homer in the ninth, his third of the season, leaving him two short of tying his career high.
Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.