ST. PETERSBURG — Right-hander Jeff Niemann did Tuesday what he has now done more than any other Ray in club history, tossing another shutout, a high point in an already spectacular season.
And Carlos Peña became the offensive force the Rays have come to know throughout his career — but not often enough in this so-far disappointing year — with his two homers offering a good sign of things to come.
Together, they lifted the Rays to a 9-0 win over the Blue Jays in front of 12,937 at Tropicana Field, kicking off a six-game homestand with a bang.
Tampa Bay (38-20) kept a two-game lead in the American League East. The crowd reached its crescendo in the fifth, with a standing ovation bringing Peña out of the dugout for a curtain call after his second homer, a grand slam.
"That was awesome," Peña said. "Such an honor. It was a lot of fun, needless to say. … Most importantly, getting that big win."
Niemann set the tone with another quietly impressive start, holding the Jays hitless through 51/3 innings before Mike McCoy hit a chopper between shortstop and third. Niemann knew what was going on, and so did his teammates, whom he said left him alone in the dugout.
But in the end, Niemann's club-record third shutout put him at 6-0; he hasn't lost since Sept. 15 in Baltimore, 15 starts ago. Yet — on a night when Stephen Strasburg made his dazzling debut — Niemann continues to fly under the radar.
"I feel like I'm better kind of being the underdog," he said. "Being that guy that just comes in and you don't expect anything. … You can only hide for so long."
Manager Joe Maddon has referred to Niemann as "disgustingly consistent," in a good way.
"His command of all his pitches exceeds all of our pitchers in the numbers and his command of all of them," Maddon said. "He commands his fastball, his curveball, his slider, his split. He commands all of these pitches every night that he pitches. That's the uniqueness of him."
The offense was sparked by Peña, who entered with a .176 average. Maddon isn't concerned as much with the average as the quality of Peña's at-bats, his organization of the strike zone and his confidence. All three were good Tuesday, with Peña hitting a homer in the fourth off lefty Brian Tallet; he entered the at-bat 2-for-17 with eight strikeouts against Tallet.
There were other positives, including more good plate appearances (and two hits) by B.J. Upton in the leadoff spot, and what Maddon called an "incredible" 4-6-3 double play turned by Sean Rodriguez and Reid Brignac in the fourth. "That was as slick as they come," Maddon said.
As for Peña, it's hard to make too much out of one game; after his last multihomer game (May 20 in New York), he went 5-for-50. But Maddon said the game was a positive sign, including an appearance in the seventh when Peña went from down 0-and-2 to a walk.
"At some point, he's going to get back to that level where he's going to carry us for a long period of time," Maddon said. "There's no doubt in my mind."