ST. PETERSBURG — Right-hander Jeff Niemann's rookie season has had its share of unpredictable moments.
The 6-foot-9 Texan had to wait until a "pitch-off" on the final day of spring training before finding out he won the fifth starter's spot. He has had one start ended by a rain delay of two-plus hours and another one skipped when the Rays reshuffled the rotation this week.
But what has been consistent about Niemann is this: The Rays seem to win every time he's on the mound. That was the case Friday with Niemann throwing a complete-game seven-hitter in a 6-0 win over the A's in front of 20,358 at Tropicana Field.
It was Niemann's second complete-game shutout of the season, the same amount as Royals ace Zack Greinke and one more than Blue Jays ace Roy Halladay.
Niemann, 26, has a staff-high eight wins (tied for first among American League rookies) with the Rays winning 10 of his past 11 starts. Overall, Tampa Bay is 12-4 when Niemann takes the hill, its best record behind any of the five starters.
"(Niemann) was great. He was in total command all the way," manager Joe Maddon said. "Fastball command was there; breaking ball for a strike, a lot of confidence. He's probably pitching his best professional baseball right now, and he's doing it here."
More important for the Rays (48-39), it was their fourth straight win — and ninth straight at home — keeping them 41/2 games behind first-place Boston in the AL East.
The Rays typically give Niemann great run support (7.62 per nine innings entering Friday), and they did so again.
They were given two gifts in scoring their first run. B.J. Upton appeared to pop out between home and first to start the first inning, but three A's allowed it to fall foul. On the next pitch, Upton ripped a double to left. Upton advanced to third when starting pitcher Vin Mazzaro's pickoff went into centerfield. Carl Crawford knocked Upton in with a groundout.
In the fourth, Carlos Peña hit his AL-leading 24th homer and first since June 27.
In the fifth, Ben Zobrist walked with the bases loaded. The Rays got a two-out rally going in the sixth, starting when Dioner Navarro was hit by a pitch. Upton doubled, and Navarro scored on a wild pitch, putting the Rays up 4-0.
The Rays got some promising signs from sluggers in the seventh, with Evan Longoria hitting his 17th homer (first in his past 19 games). Pat Burrell, who had just 10 extra-base hits in his first 54 games, had two Friday, including an RBI double in the seventh.
That was more than enough for Niemann, who worked his way out of several jams. In the first, he stranded runners on first and third, helped by a great grab by first baseman Peña on a liner. Then in the fourth, two runners were on when Niemann got hit in the leg with a liner by Kurt Suzuki. But Niemann composed himself, picked up the ball and forced out Jack Cust at second before getting Jason Giambi to ground out to end the threat.
Niemann even got out of some drama in the ninth, escaping a bases-loaded jam by getting Mark Ellis to ground into a game-ending fielder's choice on his 118th pitch.
"I've felt like I've been throwing the ball well the past few times out," Niemann said. "The curveballs, the breaking balls have been there, and hopefully, I can keep that going."