ST. PETERSBURG — Just a couple of hours before Rays rookie pitcher Jeff Niemann made his first big-league start, his manager spoke with clear confidence about the 6-foot-9 right-hander's readiness.
"I believe it's the right moment," Joe Maddon said. "He's ready for this."
The tall Texan proved up to the tough task, delivering a dazzling 6-2 win over the Orioles, giving up just one run in six innings in front of 16,748 Sunday afternoon at Tropicana Field.
With his parents in the stands, in his first time in the Trop other than three "Fan Fests," the 25-year-old wowed with his poise and command of his four pitches. Niemann soaked in the atmosphere, including when his teammates drenched him with a postgame beer bath.
"Best-tasting beer I've ever had in my life," he said, grinning.
Indeed, of all the "peaks and valleys" Niemann said he has experienced since the Rays drafted him in the first round in 2004 — including being a late cut in spring training — Sunday's exploits were tough to top.
Maddon said it was a "very impressive performance," noting how Niemann kept his composure. In a shaky 28-pitch first inning, the former Rice standout gave up a leadoff hit to Brian Roberts, who stole second, then a walk to Melvin Mora. "I thought we had him right where we wanted him," Orioles manager Dave Trembley said. Niemann, however, struck out Nick Markakis before getting the final two outs to strand the bases loaded.
While Niemann settled in, so did Orioles starter Brian Burres, no-hitting the Rays (6-6) through four. That changed in the fifth, when the Rays batted around to tally all their runs and hits (six).
Third baseman Evan Longoria, the touted prospect making his second straight start since getting called up, led off with a walk. After the Rays loaded the bases, Akinori Iwamura ripped an RBI single to left and Carl Crawford slapped a two-run single. But the biggest hit of the day came from centerfielder B.J. Upton. Upton, homerless in his first 11 games, worked a 3-and-2 count before belting a three-run shot.
That was enough for Niemann, starting in place of the injured Matt Garza. Showing command of his trademark fastball, he also threw his offspeed stuff for strikes when behind in the count and finished with five strikeouts and one walk.
Niemann's only mistake came on his first pitch in the sixth, which Markakis drove just over the leftfield wall. After giving up a two-out double to Luke Scott, Niemann showed his mettle again, falling behind Adam Jones 2-and-0 before freezing him on a 3-and-2 fastball inside.
"I stuck to my plan and it worked," Niemann said. "Hopefully, I can go out and do that (again) in five days."
The Rays needed five relievers to close the deal, including Dan Wheeler, who got two tough outs after inheriting a bases-loaded jam in the seventh; Trever Miller, Al Reyes and Troy Percival combined to retire the final seven in order to preserve Niemann's win.
Afterward, Niemann found a congratulatory bottle of Dom Perignon sent to him by Cliff Floyd. The rookie paused, and smiled.
"I don't think I'm going to open this," Niemann said. "I'm going to keep that one."
Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org