ST. PETERSBURG — Rookie right-hander Jeff Niemann can laugh about the "pitchoff" now.
After all, Niemann is the first Rays starter to 10 wins after Tampa Bay's 7-1 victory over the Royals at the Trop on Saturday afternoon.
But before Niemann, 26, turned into a surprisingly steady force on the Rays pitching staff, there was plenty of uncertainty surrounding the 6-foot-9 Texan's career.
Niemann reflected Saturday on his journey, on the anxious moments during the final day of spring training, when he and buddy Jason Hammel had a "pitchoff" for the final rotation spot, waiting alone together for hours in the minor-league clubhouse in Port Charlotte. One would be the fifth starter. The other would likely get traded, a destination unknown.
"I was sitting there with a Starbucks coffee, and had the little map of the U.S.," Niemann said. "We would say, 'Are you going to end up there? Or there?' We were pointing at spots on the map. Just trying to have fun with it, because it was driving us both nuts."
Niemann (10-5) is having his share of fun now, having put together another impressive performance: eight innings, one run, no walks against Kansas City. He wasn't as dominant as he was in his two-hit shutout against the Royals two months ago, but Niemann showed his growth by battling without his best curveball.
More important, Niemann helped Tampa Bay (57-47) move within five games of the first-place Yankees in the AL East, with two more games left against the AL-worst Royals (40-63).
"This is the first opportunity I've had to really come in and do some things, and I'm going to do everything I can to not let it slip away," Niemann said. "I'm definitely not taking anything for granted, just going out there and doing whatever I can to stick around."
Niemann wasn't a one-man show Saturday for the sellout crowd of 36,973. There was Jason Bartlett, who ripped a 3-and-2 pitch from lefty Bruce Chen into the rightfield corner for a two-out triple in the second, driving in two runs and scoring himself because of a wild throw.
There was the defense, which sparkled behind Niemann. From Carl Crawford's picture-perfect throw to get Brayan Peña at the plate (with catcher Dioner Navarro craftily blocking the plate), to a diving stop from Ben Zobrist and leaping catch by Carlos Peña, Niemann's teammates had his back.
"The defense played amazing," Niemann said. "There were five or six plays off the top of my head that really helped me out."
The Rays tagged on four runs in the eighth, started by a two-run homer by Crawford. That was more than enough for Niemann, who now has a staff-leading five outings of eight or more innings. "The way he's pitching has really surpassed my expectations," manager Joe Maddon said.
Count Peña, however, as one of his teammates who isn't surprised by the success. Peña said he told Niemann, the Rays' 2004 first-round pick, he expected as much during last season.
"I told him, 'You're a big-league pitcher — right now,' " Peña said. " 'You're a successful big-league pitcher. All you have to do is do your thing, be yourself and you've got everything you need.'
"Look at him now."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]