BOSTON — The Rays insist that Jeff Niemann is healthy.
Well if that is the case, then there's something else wrong.
And it's quickly becoming a question of what they should do about it.
After Niemann was brutally bad in Monday's 12-5 series-opening loss to the Red Sox — the worst of his three starts since returning from the disabled list — the Rays said they plan to stick with him.
Rather than consider alternatives such as rookie Jeremy Hellickson, they're going to send Niemann back out hoping he can regain his form when he faces the heavy-hitting Blue Jays on Sunday in Toronto.
"He's healthy, and this guy was one of our best pitchers before he got hurt," manager Joe Maddon said. "He's a big part of what we're doing, and we need to get him right. So we'll get him out there, have his workout day and see if we can get him straightened out by his next start."
Pitching coach Jim Hickey said he was confident they could, identifying some mechanical flaws that are causing the lack of command that he considers "readily correctable."
Niemann insisted there are no residual issues from the shoulder strain that landed him on the disabled list for three weeks. He said he feels fine and does fine in bullpen sessions, but when he gets in the game, he doesn't have command of his pitches, especially his fastball.
"I just can't do what I want to do with the ball," he said.
He certainly couldn't Monday, as he lasted just 1⅔ innings, allowing six runs as seven of the 12 batters he faced reached base (including back-to-back home runs by David Ortiz and Adrian Beltre in the first), and throwing 65 pitches.
"Everything's there, everything's fine. It's just a matter of putting it all together," he said. "I want to get back out there and go. … There's no reason for this to happen, and the longer I sit and dwell on it, the worse it's going to get."
Pitching has suddenly become a concern for the Rays, who have lost three straight and given up 28 runs in doing so, their most for any three-game span this season.
And Niemann wasn't the only problem Monday as the Rays walked a season-high 10 and Andy Sonnanstine had a rough return, allowing five runs including a grand slam. Only some equally bad mound work by the Red Sox — including three consecutive walks with the bases loaded during a seventh inning that saw the Rays use a record-tying six pinch-hitters — kept the game vaguely interesting.
As much as the Rays (83-54) want to only look ahead at making up the 2½ games they're behind the Yankees to win the American League East title, they'd be wise to keep looking over their shoulder as the White Sox are now within six games, and the Red Sox 6½, in the wild-card race.
Niemann was having a tremendous season — 10-3 with a 3.12 ERA — before being sidelined in early August with what was diagnosed as a shoulder strain, and he has been nothing close to that since coming back, going 0-3 with a 20.03 ERA, having allowed 23 runs while pitching 3⅔, 5-plus and 1⅔ innings.
As rough as his first two outings were, Hickey said there were positives. But Monday he admitted "was probably as bad as it appeared."
Hickey said the problem is a mechanical flaw that has Niemann pulling his fastball across the plate instead of throwing them exactly where he wants. Maddon thinks it's also an issue of a lack of confidence.
"I honestly believe it's more about what he's thinking than what he's throwing," he said.
Marc Topkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.