ST. PETERSBURG — After another early exit by right-hander Jeff Niemann on Thursday night, both he and manager Joe Maddon insisted it won't be much longer before he returns to his regular form.
"I think he's on the verge," Maddon said. "He's not far, in spite of what you may think."
Niemann says nothing is physically or mechanically wrong, but he's lacking in location and luck, which was evident in the Rays' 9-2 loss to the White Sox in front of 16,751 at Tropicana Field. It was the most runs Tampa Bay (9-10) has given up all season — equaling the number they had surrendered the past five games combined — and its most lopsided loss.
But while the Rays still felt good in wrapping up a successful 6-2 homestand, getting them back in the American League East race after a 1-8 start, they'll likely feel a lot better when Niemann is back to his old self.
Niemann, who gave up six runs (five earned) and six hits (along with two hit batters) over 42/3 innings, has allowed five or more runs in seven of his past 11 starts, but he said "it's just a matter of time before things start going my way."
"I'm not discouraged by anything, I think he's going to be fine," Maddon said. "With him it's about sharpness, command overall with his pitches, and it's just not there yet. …
"They just didn't pummel him. He wasn't awful by any means."
However, Niemann wasn't the only Ray off his game.
Tampa Bay's typically sparkling defense let down in the first inning, when third baseman Felipe Lopez made a throwing error to first after bare-handing a Juan Pierre bunt, allowing the White Sox's leadoff man to race to third (and eventually score).
There was the Rays' typically sharp bullpen, which allowed three runs, ending an eight-game streak of not allowing an earned run.
Shortstop Reid Brignac was picked off first base, and the Rays stranded many others, going 1-for-6 with runners in scoring position, including John Jaso hitting into an inning-ending 1-2-3 double play with the bases loaded in the second.
The only thing typical of the Rays was leftfielder Sam Fuld. He continued his impressive play by making another highlight-reel catch in the third, running into the wall in foul territory, nearly flipping over it.
"Once again, Sammy on the spot," Maddon said.
Fuld also had two hits, including a two-run single in the sixth for the Rays' offensive output.
Niemann, who has received just four runs of support in four outings, saw it get away from him in a four-run third inning, in which he threw 37 of his 89 pitches, allowing four hits.
"I made a lot of good pitches," Niemann said, "it's just right now, I'm going through a point in time where every mistake I make gets hit, and even the good pitches I make get hit."