ST. PETERSBURG — Through the first five innings Tuesday, Jeff Niemann started to look more like the right-hander who was one of the Rays' most consistent starters.
Niemann, making his second start since coming off the disabled list, held the Blue Jays to just two hits.
"Everything was there," Niemann said. "I felt like we were back."
Then came the sixth, and everything fell apart.
Niemannn was charged with six runs in Toronto's 10-run inning as the Rays lost 13-5 in front of another small crowd of 12,972 at Tropicana Field. In doing so, Tampa Bay (81-51) dropped out of first place for the first time in nine days, trailing the Yankees by one game as the calendar flips to September.
The Rays led by two before Niemann's sixth, when he failed to get an out, gave up five hits and hit a batter. Lance Cormier struggled, too, getting charged with four runs, leading many fans to leave the stands and manager Joe Maddon to empty the bench.
"I've had a little bit of time to think about it, and I still am not sure what really happened," Niemann said. "Everything felt fine, everything felt great early. And all of a sudden, I just couldn't get anybody out."
Maddon felt Niemann looked a lot better than he did in Anaheim in his previous outing, when he gave up a career-high 10 runs in just 32/3 innings, and said he is not overly concerned.
"He was throwing the ball well, he had good velocity, he had really good movement, they had bad swings on him," Maddon said. "After five innings I thought, 'This is looking pretty darn good.' Normally he rides that out pretty good."
Niemann said he physically feels fine. But he has given up a combined 17 runs and 15 hits over his past 82/3 innings. The 17 runs match the number Niemann allowed the entire month of July in six starts.
"It's very frustrating," Niemann said. "But that's what this game is about. It's not supposed to be easy. So it's one of those times where you've got to dig deep and figure out what's going on."
The Rays took the lead in the fifth inning off Jays left-hander Ricky Romero, thanks to two walks and a two-out RBI single by Ben Zobrist followed by a go-ahead two-run double by Dan Johnson.
But Niemann gave it all back in the sixth, and everything unraveled quickly.
Fred Lewis led off the sixth with a perfectly placed bunt single that rolled to a stop right on the third-base line. Lewis stole second — one of three Blue Jays steals, the most they've had in a game all season — and scored on a DeWayne Wise single. Niemann hit Jose Bautista with a pitch then gave up three straight doubles before getting pulled.
Toronto manager Cito Gaston thought that when Niemann plunked Bautista — the majors leader in home runs — "our guys got fired up a little bit."
"I'm not sure if he was throwing at him intentionally or if it just got away from him," Gaston said. "Whatever it was, it seemed to wake our guys up."
Niemann said he may have lost some command in the sixth, but he also credited the Jays.
"That lineup is as potent as any lineup out there," Niemann said. "They can take advantage of stuff. They can hit good pitches, too. So that's a good team over there and they're capable of doing that every single night."
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.