Make us your home page
Instagram

Get the quickest, smartest news, analysis and photos from the Bucs game emailed to you shortly after the final whistle.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Jeff Niemann heads into second season with greater confidence

Jeff Niemann heads into his second season in the majors with a new confidence after leading the Rays in wins and topping AL rookie pitchers in ERA, winning percentage, complete games and shutouts.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

Jeff Niemann heads into his second season in the majors with a new confidence after leading the Rays in wins and topping AL rookie pitchers in ERA, winning percentage, complete games and shutouts.

PORT CHARLOTTE — When manager Joe Maddon looks at right-hander Jeff Niemann this spring, he sees a different guy.

He sees a more obvious form of self-confidence, a tremendous amount of focus.

"He knows he belongs here now," Maddon said.

For all the talk about Niemann's physical tools, from the 6-foot-9, 260-pound frame to his mid-90s fastball, it's his mental makeup that's a big reason he had such an impressive rookie season, leading the staff with 13 wins after earning the fifth starter's spot on the final day of spring.

It's a credit to the "mental tricks" Niemann said he learned from sports psychologist Ken Ravizza, breathing exercises that helped him slow the game down and bounce back from rough moments. But it's also due to the quiet determination Niemann has used to persevere throughout a career that has had its share of bumps.

"In every step of the way for me, I've always kind of been at some point in an underdog situation, whether it be high school, college or wherever," said Niemann, 27. "It's just something I kind of thrive on doing and something I enjoy doing — stuff you're not supposed to do."

Before Niemann was the fourth overall pick in 2004, there were humble beginnings. With his family not having a lot of money, Niemann had to work as a counselor in a behavioral center to pay to play for his summer ball team in high school. The facility, which was the last stop for minors before going to jail, was a chaotic environment, and Niemann said he saw "crazy" things he couldn't even describe.

"You never got a good night sleep; there was always a potential of something happening," Niemann said. "It was very uneasy, sleeping on the couch, four days on, four days off, playing ball on top of that, too."

Undrafted out of high school, he landed at Rice University, where he went from an unheralded fourth starter (pitching mostly in midweek games) his freshman year to a postseason hero; he won the decisive seventh game of the 2003 NCAA regional against Washington. "That," Rice coach Wayne Graham said, "showed me a lot."

Niemann became one of the nation's best pitchers and joined fellow Rice pitchers Wade Townsend and Philip Humber among the top eight picks of the 2004 draft. They've all suffered significant arm injuries, with only Niemann so far working his way back into a big-league rotation.

"If you look at that body type, and how big he is, he's almost a once-in-a-lifetime kind of pitcher," said Townsend, a good friend and former Rays prospect who is on a minor-league contract with the Blue Jays. "They finally gave him a chance in the big leagues, and once he got his feet wet, that's what he's supposed to do, what he was born to do."

Niemann's lengthy journey to the majors included the 204 days it took to sign after he was drafted and the rehab from a 2005 shoulder surgery that "forced me to start all over from Square 1."

The wait made last year's success all the more rewarding. Niemann ranked first among American League rookies in winning percentage (.684), ERA (3.94), complete games and shutouts (two each).

"He showed he can dominate," Ben Zobrist said. "And I think he also showed a great ability to make adjustments."

Niemann said the adjustments he made partly stemmed from Ravizza's "mental tricks," which he translated into daily life this offseason on his 166-acre ranch in Texas while trying to hit a bull's-eye with his bow and arrow.

Now, Niemann is taking aim at topping his 2009 feats.

"Last year was, 'I can do it,' " Niemann said. "And now it's proving I can do it again."

Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@sptimes.com.

Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Jeff Niemann heads into second season with greater confidence 03/01/10 [Last modified: Monday, March 1, 2010 9:06pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. After offseason of work hard, play hard, DeSean Jackson ready to produce for Bucs

    Bucs

    TAMPA — There's no telling what DeSean Jackson will do once he gets a football in his hands. Perhaps that's why a camera crew followed his every move Wednesday while the Bucs' new $30 million receiver stood on a step of the hot tub that empties into a spacious, azure pool at his new, sprawling five-bedroom home in …

    DeSean Jackson jokes around with girlfriend Kayla Phillips at their Tampa home as a crew from HBO’s Hard Knocks documents their day.
  2. Rays journal: Jake Odorizzi goes on 10-day DL with back strain

    The Heater

    ST. PETERSBURG — RHP Jake Odorizzi is hoping his struggles this season can be tied directly to the lower-back strain he has tried to pitch through since spring training. Toward that end, the Rays placed Odorizzi on the 10-day disabled list Wednesday retroactive to Tuesday.

    Rays center fielder Mallex Smith smiles after hitting a single advancing runners in the third inning. [CHRIS URSO   |   Times]
  3. Playoff chase heats up for Rays with key series at Yankees up first (w/ video)

    The Heater

    ST. PETERSBURG

    It was important that Evan Longoria crushed a two-run homer in the sixth inning Wednesday and Steven Souza Jr. blasted a solo shot off the farthest catwalk an inning later.

    Adeiny Hechavarria (11) and Tim Beckham (1) celebrate the double play to end the top of the sixth inning. [WILL VRAGOVIC   |   Times]
  4. Rays at Yankees, 7:05 p.m. Thursday, New York

    The Heater

    Tonight: at Yankees

    7:05, Yankee Stadium, New York

    TV/radio: Fox Sports Sun; 620-AM, 680-AM (Spanish)

    Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Chris Archer (22) throwing in the first inning of the game between the Texas Rangers and the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. on Saturday, July 22, 2017.
  5. Roger Mooney's takeaways from Wednesday's Rays-Orioles game

    The Heater

    It is going to get interesting tonight when the Rays begin a four-game series against the Yankees in New York. The Rays feel they are good enough to win the East Division. These next four games and the four that follow in Houston will be a good measuring stick.