CLEVELAND — For RHP Jeff Niemann, Thursday's hard-luck loss had to be particularly tough to take.
Niemann, 26, pitched three strong innings, giving up one run and striking out four (one shy of tying his season high).
"I thought Jeff was throwing the ball great," manager Joe Maddon said. "I was really pleased with that."
But after a 2-hour, 40-minute rain delay in the fourth, Niemann's outing was cut short and he was left as the losing pitcher in the Indians' 2-1 win.
Niemann said he kept his arm warm and ready for the first hour of the delay, but after it dragged on, the Rays had long reliever Lance Cormier take over in the fourth.
"It's unfortunate, but that's the way it goes," Niemann said. "It's something that you can't control."
Maddon has said he has been impressed with how the 6-foot-9 rookie has progressed as the fifth starter, especially how he handles his emotions. Niemann got out of a couple jams Thursday, including the first inning, when he allowed the first two hitters to reach base.
"I was trying to keep it rolling, like I have been the past few outings," Niemann said. "I felt good, felt like I could have been able to keep doing it if I stayed out there."
In an instant: Willy Aybar's solo homer in the sixth didn't come without an argument, but it was confirmed via instant replay.
Aybar ripped a pitch from reliever Jensen Lewis, and the ball initially appeared to hit the bottom of the yellow line atop the wall near the rightfield foul pole before bouncing back into play. With the rules stating the ball has to hit above the yellow line to be a homer, Indians manager Eric Wedge argued his case, and the umpires used replays.
They took 90 seconds before ruling it was a homer. Another replay angle showed conclusively the ball ricocheted off the railing above the wall, then hit the yellow line
"I knew I hit it good," Aybar said through an interpreter. "But I thought the ball was going to hook foul, that's why I didn't get out of the box quick. But I knew I hit it pretty good."
Aybar, who went 2-for-4 on Thursday, has reached base in 18 straight starts. In May, he's hitting .344 (21-61) with three homers and 10 RBIs in 20 games.
Stepping in: Although Maddon has said he'd like to maximize utilityman Ben Zobrist's effectiveness by spotting him in off the bench, Zobrist has performed really well recently in a stretch where he has started a season-high six straight games (due to injuries to Akinori Iwamura and Jason Bartlett). Zobrist, who went 2-for-4 on Thursday, has reached base 28 times in his past 55 at-bats (17-for-44 with 11 walks, three homers and 12 RBIs).
Zobrist, who is hitting .304, said that "any time you can see the ball on a consistent basis, you're going to get in a better rhythm, and you're going to figure things out a little more."
"Really good at-bats," Maddon said of Zobrist. "He's had a great series, he's been playing very well, his whole game; wherever we put him, he's playing fine. His hitting, his baserunning, all that stuff has been good."
Medical matters: Maddon said he wasn't sure if DH Pat Burrell (neck stiffness) will take batting practice today or if he'll do it later in this weekend's series. "He's feeling better but still not to where we need to get him," Maddon said. Meanwhile, RHP Chad Bradford's rehab assignment at Class A Charlotte is going well, with Maddon saying he's "getting closer."
Miscellany: OF Matt Joyce had his best game as a Durham Bull on Wednesday night, going 3-for-5 with three doubles and six RBIs. … LF Carl Crawford has hit safely in eight straight games, batting .303 (10-for-33).
Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org