ST. PETERSBURG — At 6-feet-9 and 260 pounds, Jeff Niemann is hardly one to sneak up on anyone.
But the guy who almost didn't make the Rays' roster last spring and wasn't sure he'd make it through his rookie season, and the guy who quietly and routinely goes about his work slotted between the dynamic duo of Matt Garza and David Price, has suddenly turned into the guy who anchors the league's top rotation.
"He may be the most consistent starter that we have night after night," manager Joe Maddon said. "In talking about the number of innings pitched, the quality starts and, furthermore, the number of pitches thrown."
The bottom line isn't bad either.
Niemann delivered again in Thursday's 5-1 victory over the White Sox, snapping a three-game Rays losing streak for the second time this month, with a dominating eight innings in which he allowed only three hits.
He improved to 5-0, the second Rays starter ever to open a season that well. He lowered his ERA to 2.37, and his average pitches per inning to 13.8, both second best in the AL. He logged his ninth consecutive quality start, the most, and longest such streak, in the league.
And that's only part of the story.
Consider his work over a full year, a 16-3 record and 3.16 ERA in 34 starts, plus six games he left with a lead that got away in the bullpen's hands. (As did a potential AL rookie of the year award).
"I felt it was at this point last year when we finally figured it out," Niemann said. "I was definitely skating on thin ice the first few weeks last year. I told myself all winter and coming into spring that I was just going to roll into this year what I did at the end of last year.
"I grew and changed so much as a pitcher, and you find out what works and won't work by experience."
The progress has been obvious: to Maddon, who raves about the wide array of weapons Niemann puts to use; to catcher John Jaso, who insists this is typical of what Niemann did regularly in Triple A; and to White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, who praised Niemann's aggressiveness.
In a Rays clubhouse that was devoid of smiles during the three-game sweep by the Red Sox, Niemann got a large share of the credit.
"Jeff was huge," third baseman Evan Longoria said. "His goal was to go out there and be the stopper today, and he accomplished that."
"We needed that start from him," leftfielder Carl Crawford said.
Niemann had some help, as the stagnant offense didn't exactly break out, but it found a way mixing muscle and hustle.
Crawford homered in the first to give the Rays (majors-best 33-15) their first lead since Sunday, and Longoria went deep for the first time in two weeks, ending a 44 at-bat drought. Sean Rodriguez's heads-up baserunning, advancing from second to third on a foul out, keyed a "rally" that consisted of a hit batter, a single, the foul out and a sac fly. Jaso hustled, too, scoring from second behind Longoria on Hank Blalock's eighth-inning single. Plus, there was the usual dazzling defense.
But the biggest reason the Rays were smiling was the work of the 27-year-old Texan.
"Listen, you don't have to convince me about Jeff," Maddon said. "He's very consistent, he has great stuff, he has weapons for both right-handers and left-handers, and he's got a wide array of pitches. …
"He's had those moments when he just couldn't turn the page but finally he did in the middle of last season and then just took off."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]es.com.