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Jeff Niemann pitches way back into consideration for Tampa Bay Rays playoff spot

ST. PETERSBURG — The manager could be seen walking home on a south Tampa street at 2:30 a.m. after celebrating with friends.

From the looks of the players traipsing into the clubhouse Wednesday afternoon, a few of them extended the previous night's party beyond the clubhouse doors, too.

Yet for all the revelry after clinching a postseason spot, there was at least one Rays player tucked safely into bed at a decent hour Tuesday night. For Jeff Niemann, this was not a time to let his guard down.

More than any other player, Niemann had something to prove Wednesday night against the Orioles. With the deadline for the 25-man postseason roster looming, the Rays right-hander was trying to justify his existence one last time.

"I feel like I've been pitching for my life the past four outings," Niemann said. "The way things have gone, it's been a roller coaster."

Tampa Bay has gotten more production out of its original starters than any other team in the majors in 2010. The same five guys who left Port Charlotte in the rotation last spring are still pitching today, and they have combined to start 95.5 percent of the Rays' games this season.

Yet one of them will have likely made his final start of 2010 this week. With travel days built into postseason schedules, most rotations will shrink from five to four starters.

And right now, Niemann looks like the most logical cut.

Since feeling some tenderness in his shoulder and going on the disabled list in early August, Niemann has not been the same pitcher who delivered so many quality starts for the Rays in the first half of the season.

He has struggled with his command, and struggled with his confidence. There have been poor outings that were followed by horrible outings. It wasn't until Wednesday night against the Orioles that Niemann looked like he belonged on a big-league mound again.

Niemann threw six shutout innings before giving up a two-run triple to Felix Pie in the seventh. And even that would have been avoided most nights if Evan Longoria had been playing third base instead of Dan Johnson, because an Adam Jones ground-ball single one batter earlier would have likely been the third out.

"I've been pressing, trying to make it happen, trying to force it instead of just letting things happen," Niemann said. "I can't press things. All I have control over is making a good pitch, and the result will take care of itself. Tonight I got back in that trusting mode and tried to repeat quality pitches after quality pitches. And that's the kind of result you get."

With Wednesday night's performance, Niemann is at least back in the conversation for the postseason. He is still probably a long shot for the rotation but could be a consideration in the bullpen.

"He looked really normal tonight to me," manager Joe Maddon said. "When he does that, he gets bad swings. And there were some bad swings tonight. When he looks like that, he is a very effective pitcher."

Beyond David Price in Game 1, the choices in the rotation are not automatic. James Shields and Matt Garza have larger bodies of work, but each has struggled lately. Wade Davis worked the back end of the rotation as a rookie but has been the second-best starter of late.

And then there is Niemann.

It was not so long ago that Niemann was as sure of a bet as anyone on the staff. From the start of 2009 until he went on the disabled list in early August, Niemann was 23-9 with a 3.58 ERA. In that same stretch, Price was 25-13 with a 3.64 ERA.

Which means the Rays have to weigh the memory of that Niemann against the reality of a guy who is 1-5 with a 10.03 ERA since coming off the disabled list.

So the compromise could be a spot in the bullpen, particularly if the Rays carry 11 pitchers on the roster. And particularly with the possibility of homer-happy Texas looming in the first round of the playoffs. Shields has had trouble giving up too many long balls this season, so there might be some attraction to carrying a reliever with the ability to throw multiple innings.

Having thrown only 84 pitches over his seven innings Wednesday night, there is even the possibility the Rays could bring Niemann back for a short stint in relief on Sunday in Kansas City against the Royals.

"It felt like everything was there for me tonight. Everything felt like it should," Niemann said. "It was a great way to end for me."

And the way he pitched, perhaps it isn't necessarily the end for Jeff Niemann in 2010.

John Romano can be reached at (727) 893-8811.

September swoon

The Rays' rotation has not exactly shined in September.

Starter W-L ERA Inn.

Wade Davis 1-1 3.38 26 2/3

Matt Garza 2-2 6.41 26 2/3

Jeff Niemann 1-3 7.25 23 2/3

David Price 4-0 1.67 43

James Shields 0-3 7.00 27

Jeff Niemann pitches way back into consideration for Tampa Bay Rays playoff spot 09/29/10 [Last modified: Thursday, September 30, 2010 5:50pm]
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