TORONTO — Rookie right-hander Jeff Niemann admits he's still a "work in progress in terms of being consistently good."
The 6-foot-9 Texan has shown flashes of dominance, such as in a complete-game shutout against the Royals. He also has dealt with the struggles that often come with young pitchers.
But though Niemann, 26, is still adjusting to the big-league learning curve, he passed a big test Monday night against the Blue Jays.
Niemann was impressive in outdueling Jays ace Roy Halladay, giving up just one run in 7? innings to lift the Rays to a 4-1 victory over Toronto in front of 15,665 at the Rogers Centre.
Not only did Niemann pick up his staff-leading seventh win, veteran reliever Randy Choate noted that he showed a lot of character by putting up this kind of performance — against one of the league's best pitchers — after a week of uncertainty, when he had to wait to see if he'd keep his spot in the rotation when Scott Kazmir came back.
"Niemann pitched a great game," manager Joe Maddon said. "He had his curveball working against the lefties, and whenever he does that, he pitches well. Just great composure throughout. You've got to pitch well to beat (Halladay), and we did. That's why we came out on top."
The Rays (43-35) have won six straight and moved to a season-high eight games over .500, five games behind the Red Sox in the AL East. And considering Tampa Bay faces the Jays in 17 of its remaining 84 games, beating Toronto's top hurler had to be a boost of confidence.
"We're feeling pretty good right now," Carl Crawford said. "Hopefully we can keep it up. We're still trying to climb back up in the standings. So we're just trying to get in a groove and stay there."
Crawford has played a big role in the winning streak. He came through again Monday, hitting a two-run homer off Halladay in the third inning, giving the Rays a 2-0 lead that Niemann said helped take the pressure off him.
Crawford, who went 2-for-3, stole his 40th base of the season.
"He's just got a good thing going on," Maddon said. "He's got a good approach, a better approach than I've ever seen him."
Niemann did his part. In the second, hot-hitting Scott Rolen doubled to extend his career-best hitting streak to 17 games then stole third base with one out, but Niemann retired the next two hitters.
Niemann (7-4) wasn't overpowering, striking out only one, and the Jays hit him hard at times, but often right at a Tampa Bay fielder. The key was that he walked only two and made the Jays put the ball in play, showing efficiency in throwing 65 of his 100 pitches for strikes.
Maddon said he can typically gauge when Niemann is on if he's throwing his curveball for a strike and if he can get his fastball down. On Monday, "I was throwing strikes with both," Niemann said.
Halladay (10-2), making his first start since coming off the disabled list with a sore groin, was strong as well, giving up just two runs over six innings. When he left, the Rays took advantage as Pat Burrell hit a solo homer in the seventh and B.J. Upton hit a sacrifice fly.
That was more than enough for Niemann.
Dan Wheeler and Choate combined for the final five outs to seal the win.
"We know he's got it," Upton said. "I think he's just still in that learning curve. Things are a lot different your first year, trying to figure things out. I think he's definitely coming. We all know it's going to take time. But I think we'll continue to see him get better as the season goes on."
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.