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Jeff Niemann has strong start in front of hometown crowd as Tampa Bay Rays beat Houston Astros

HOUSTON — For right-hander Jeff Niemann, pitching in his hometown for the first time as a pro was special enough.

That he delivered such a strong performance — giving up two runs over seven innings in the Rays' 4-2 win over the Astros on Saturday — made it especially sweet for him, as well as the around 40 family members and friends in the stands at Minute Maid Park.

"It's a great thing to be able to come home finally and leave with a win," Niemann said. "It was fun."

Tampa Bay (31-12) has won seven of its past eight and again has a five-game lead over the Yankees in the American League East. To get there, they slew another left-handed starter (Wandy Rodriguez), making them a major-league-best 15-5 against southpaws this season, with wins in 10 of their past 11.

The key to that success? They're still not hitting them well (a .238 average entering Saturday's game), but Rays starting pitchers have a 1.67 ERA in those wins, giving up no earned runs in five of them.

Niemann did his part, bouncing back after a rocky first inning. He got some help from his defense as second baseman Ben Zobrist made two great plays in the first inning to limit the damage to one run: a diving grab of Michael Bourn's leadoff liner; and a heady behind-the-back flip to shortstop Jason Bartlett to force out a runner at second with the bases loaded and one out.

The Rays weren't flawless, getting picked off on the bases for the fourth straight game as Carl Crawford got caught by catcher Humberto Quintero in the first. Gabe Kapler got trapped in a rundown between first and second in the sixth, and B.J. Upton, trying to score on the play, got thrown out at home.

But Maddon said he was most upset about his own mental mistake, failing to notice that Astros coaches made two trips to the mound to visit Wilton Lopez in the ninth, which should have forced a pitching change.

"That was one of the most bizarre victories I've ever been associated with in a sense where you can be that bad, but that good, and fortunately come out on top," Maddon said.

Struggling catcher Dioner Navarro finally found some good fortune with a two-run double in the fourth, which gave the Rays the lead for good at 2-1. They were his first RBIs since April 9, and he has just four overall while hitting .188.

Maddon said before the game that Navarro had been hitting into a number of line-drive outs. Navarro caught a break on a bloop double that bounced out of Hunter Pence's outstretched glove in right.

"It's been a while," Navarro said, smiling. "Just got lucky, man. … The kind of year I've been having, it wouldn't have been weird if he would have caught that ball."

Joked Maddon: "And the ground can cause a fumble. That's the beauty of major-league baseball."

Niemann, who remembered watching the Astros as a kid, attended the opener at Minute Maid Park in 2000 and pitched here for Rice University, wasn't the only Houston native to step up; Crawford also had a huge game, going 4-for-5.

The bullpen was great again, with Grant Balfour throwing a scoreless eighth and Rafael Soriano picking up his 12th save in 12 chances with a 1-2-3 ninth.

"That was the best stuff he's had all year," Maddon said. "Soriano was really, really lights out in the ninth, that was nice to see."

Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@sptimes.com.

Jeff Niemann has strong start in front of hometown crowd as Tampa Bay Rays beat Houston Astros 05/22/10 [Last modified: Sunday, May 23, 2010 4:19am]
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