ST. PETERSBURG — Knowing that RHP Jeff Niemann has been battling fatigue late in his impressive rookie season, manager Joe Maddon said he could learn a valuable lesson pitching without his best stuff.
Niemann passed that test Saturday night, battling his way through five innings without overthrowing and giving up just two runs in the Rays' 5-3 win over the Yankees in front of 30,084 at Tropicana Field.
"He did exactly what we asked him to do," Maddon said.
And in doing so, Niemann picked up the ever-elusive win No. 13, one that took seven starts to claim.
"I haven't gotten a win in whatever — six weeks or so," Niemann said. "It was a great way to finish off this way."
The Rays (84-77) handed Niemann (13-6) an early 3-0 lead thanks to a two-run homer by Dioner Navarro and a Jason Bartlett RBI single in the second. They scored two more in the fifth on an error by Yankees reliever Alfredo Aceves, who tried to stop a double steal but had his throw bounce off 3B Eric Hinske's glove and into foul territory, allowing Ben Zobrist and B.J. Upton to cross the plate.
Niemann finishes his season as the Rays' staff leader in wins and ERA, becoming the first rookie to lead a defending AL champion in those categories since the Yankees' Bob Grim in 1954. Maddon said with Niemann's body of work, "he is the candidate (for AL rookie of the year); I think he should win it. …
"My goodness, at the beginning of the season, if you would have said that Jeffrey was going to win 13 and be a strong candidate for rookie of the year, a lot of people would not have believed that," Maddon said. "I'm really proud of his effort."
Niemann, the Rays' first-round pick in 2004, battled all spring for the No. 5 starter spot, and had to wait until the final day of camp before learning he made the team. Niemann said he feels he put together a good case for postseason honors but acknowledged several other rookies did as well, "so we'll see what happens."
But Niemann, 26, said if he did win, it would mean a lot to him.
"It would be unreal," he said. "For the long road I had to get here, and to get here and be able to take that home, would be a huge accomplishment for me personally."
WADING IN: Rookie RHP Wade Davis made a splash in spring training against the Yankees, striking out Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira in an impressive outing at Steinbrenner Field. Now, Davis will pitch the final game of the Rays' season against the AL East champions, wishing he had more starts left.
"I'd love to go around the league a little bit and see a bit more, to get a feel for them," Davis said. "Hopefully, I'll get the chance next year."
Davis has been impressive in his short stint with the Rays, giving up two earned runs or fewer in four of his five starts. Davis said the biggest lesson he has learned is, "if you need to make an adjustment, make it sooner rather than later, because it will hurt you." But he hopes the experience will pay off in the spring.
"I feel good about it," Davis said. "I don't know what their plans are for me, but I'm comfortable, I feel like I can pitch in the big leagues. I'm ready."
MISCELLANY: Yankees manager Joe Girardi said RHP Joba Chamberlain will pitch an inning or face a few batters in today's season finale against the Rays.
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.