TORONTO — When Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann were sent home from Toronto five weeks ago to have their ailing shoulders checked, neither they nor the Rays knew when they'd be back, or how they'd do.
And while Niemann's return has been troubling — with what he acknowledges is a pivotal fourth start today — Davis has come back just as good as he was.
Or maybe, manager Joe Maddon said after Saturday's 13-1 coast by the Blue Jays, even improved.
"He's come off of the injury and I honestly believe he's throwing the ball better right now than anytime I've ever seen him," Maddon said.
"I'm talking about last year in September, I'm talking at any point during this season. I'm talking velocity, depth on his breaking balls, demeanor on the mound, awareness. All those things are getting better. And that's why he's pitched so well."
Davis showed all of that and more Saturday, taking the 6-0 fourth-inning lead provided by Ben Zobrist's two-run double and Brad Hawpe's grand slam, and holding the explosive Blue Jays to one run over seven innings, scattering seven hits and three walks and striking out six.
The 24-year-old rookie improved to 3-0 with a 3.24 ERA in his four starts after returning from the three-week hiatus and 12-9, 4.24 overall, and he tied the team record with his seventh consecutive victory.
"It's been a big relief," Davis said. "Me and Niemann both, we just weren't sure how we were going to come back. I've never been in this situation, especially in midseason. So it's definitely good to keep it going and have some momentum going the rest of this month."
The Rays (86-55) could use it, as they try to first secure a playoff spot (with an 81/2-game lead over the Red Sox and White Sox) then run down the American League East-leading Yankees, who are just a half-game ahead after losing 7-6 to Texas and are headed to Tropicana Field for a three-game series starting Monday.
"I think all of us in here are just kind of starting to feel that playoff vibe," third baseman Evan Longoria said. "We need to dwindle that magic number (now at 13) down to the point where it's visible, and we can put that behind us and know, and start thinking toward other things."
While the offense has been coming alive (7.63 runs per game on the road trip), the pitching has been something of a concern, with a 7.63 ERA and .303 average allowed over the previous seven games.
Davis did a lot toward calming that with his strong 108-pitch outing, noting that his delivery is smoother, though he's not sure about Maddon's claims of increased velocity.
"Things are just coming a little bit better, a little bit easier," Davis said.
And Niemann can add to it with a solid effort today, having lost his first three starts back and looking bad in doing so, allowing 23 runs on 19 hits (including four homers) and eight walks in 10 innings. Maddon has suggested Niemann is pitching too cautiously, and without confidence, and also relying too much on his fastball when he should expand his repertoire.
Niemann understands he has to find something that works, before the Rays look elsewhere (Jeremy Hellickson?) for answers.
"I know what's going on," he said. "Definitely, the pressure's on. This time of year, the position we're in, you have to have guys going out there giving you quality innings. That's right what I can do, and I'm trying to get back to that."
Marc Topkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wade Davis tied the franchise record with his seventh straight win:
Mark Hendrickson 2005