MILWAUKEE — Jeff Niemann looked pretty good through the first five innings Monday in his return for the Rays, allowing just a trio of singles, showing a good fastball and a sharp curve, even coming off the mound to make a dazzling play on a squibber.
But it was what Niemann did after he got in a bit of a mess in the sixth inning that was most impressive, and encouraging, as the Rays made their first visit to Miller Park a success with an 8-4 victory that extended their winning streak to four.
"It was a really, really strong first day back," manager Joe Maddon said. "That exceeded my expectations, it really did. I didn't anticipate that stuff, that sharpness, that deep into the game."
After loading the bases on a one-out single followed by two walks, Niemann showed the kind of performance the Rays need from him this season and had been lacking since he went on the disabled list with a shoulder strain last season, as he stepped up and shut the Brewers down to preserve what was then a 1-0 lead.
Niemann bounced back to strike out Mark Kotsay (looking at a curve) then, after falling behind 3-and-1, getting Yuniesky Betancourt on a fly to right on his 36th pitch of the inning and his biggest pitch of the night.
"At that point, that was the game right there," Niemann said. "You're going to have some tense moments out there and to be able to come away and get out of that without any runs, it was huge."
His teammates took it from there, expanding the lead to 5-0 in the seventh, adding three more on an Evan Longoria homer in the eighth then hanging on to improve to 40-33, one shy of their season-high mark of eight games over .500.
"When you win 8-4 it's very pretty," Maddon said.
They were having such a good time, Maddon had outfielder Sam Fuld, who had pinch-hit, go to the mound to warm up for the eighth, stalling for time until Cesar Ramos was ready to come in. (Though maybe he should have stuck with Fuld as Ramos and Joel Peralta allowed two runs.)
"I wasn't quite sure what the heck I was doing out there," Fuld said.
Niemann was making his first start since May 4, sidelined with a lower back strain, and hadn't been pitching particularly well before the injury (1-4, 5.72).
But he gave them reason to be encouraged, allowing four hits over his six shutout innings, striking out five, though walking three, and throwing 85 pitches.
"Today was a good day," Niemann said. "Everything felt great."
His sixth-inning escape was the second act of a most entertaining inning, capped by the ejections of Brewers hitting coach Dale Sveum and manager Ron Roenicke. Leadoff man Nyjer Morgan started it when he appeared to be hit by a Niemann pitch, but home-plate ump Bob Davidson ruled that he leaned into it, starting the parade of protests.
Freed from the Trop, the Rays rang up the runs, taking a 1-0 manufactured lead in the first then expanding it with four in the seventh and three more in the eighth.
With usual DH Johnny Damon in leftfield so he could remain atop the lineup, the Rays grabbed a 1-0 lead in the first. Damon walked, moved up on a bunt and a flyout then scored when the Brewers failed to turn a double play on B.J. Upton's grounder to short.
The 1-0 advantage stood until the seventh, when they scored four.
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com.