ANAHEIM, Calif. — The one thing the Rays could feel good about after Wednesday's 12-3 drubbing by the Angels was nothing felt bad in Jeff Niemann's shoulder.
The clubhouse conclusion was that his poor pitching performance was due more to the three weeks he missed than the strained shoulder that landed him on the disabled list.
"No health issues," manager Joe Maddon said.
"I think it's just rust," Niemann said. "And not being able to do what I wanted to do with the ball."
It showed quickly as Niemann allowed a career-high 10 runs before leaving in the fourth, and the Rays, who led 1-0 on John Jaso's leadoff home run, couldn't do anything about it in what ended up being their second-worst loss of the season.
They took some solace in finishing the West Coast road trip 4-3, and some more in hanging on to a share of first place in the AL East as the Yankees also lost, though their wild-card lead over the Red Sox was cut to 51/2 games heading into a weekend series at the Trop.
There was some concern about Niemann's command, specifically his fastball, during Friday's simulated game in Oakland, but the general feeling was he'd be better after another bullpen session and a few extra days of prep.
Instead, it was worse, and it was evident from the start on a scorching hot afternoon as he walked Bobby Abreu on four pitches. By the time the 25-pitch adventure of a first inning was over, he had allowed four runs on three hits, the walk, a hit batter and a wild pitch. He ended up throwing 76 pitches (an unusually high 32 for balls) to get 10 outs, allowing 12 of the 22 batters he faced to reach base.
"Definitely wasn't expecting that," he said. "It's disappointing. It's not the way you want to come back. Just got to work hard and see what we can do."
When Niemann is on, he doesn't give the hitters much to work with. "When he's going good, he's got that two-seamer going and everyone is taking bad swings at it," Jaso said. "He was leaving the thing out there (over the plate) today."
And when he is off, he typically fixes what's wrong quickly. "Normally he makes adjustments," Maddon said. "He might go a hitter or two and lose it, but all of a sudden — boom! — he gets it back. He was just unable to get it back today."
Niemann's outing looked worse in contrast to what Wade Davis did Tuesday in returning from a similar absence and pitching into sixth, but there is a difference: Davis is more of a power pitcher, while Niemann's success is typically a result of touch and feel and command of his pitches.
"Honestly, he said he's fine," Maddon said. "You look at the (velocity) numbers, they look right (low 90s). I'm just watching him throwing, he's just off. A guy that big (6 feet 9) sometimes can get out of rhythm with his mechanics, and that's all I'm seeing right now."
Fellow starter Matt Garza said the view from the other end of the dugout was similar. "Velo's there, everything had movement, everything was good, the curveball was sharp," Garza said. "Just command, and that's going to come with knocking the rust off. He's fine. He'll be all right."
Niemann's next start is scheduled for Tuesday against Toronto, and the Rays expect him to be there, and be better.
"He's all about command; that's what made him so good," Maddon said. "Right now we have to just keep throwing him out there until he finds that release point."
Marc Topkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.