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NIEMANN DELIVERS A BLOW TO AWARD BID

The rookie and his pen waste a 5-0 lead as the Rays slip back toward .500.

The Rays have been talking a lot about Jeff Niemann winning the American League Rookie of the Year Award.

First, he's going to have to win another game.

Niemann struggled Tuesday and took the Rays down with him as they handed back an early five-run advantage and handed away another game, 10-5 to the Orioles.

"It's definitely on me for not being able to hold that lead," Niemann said.

The loss, a day after they snapped an 11-game losing streak, dropped the Rays back to one game over .500 at 73-72 and left them needing to finish 9-8 (not to be confused with 9=8) to salvage a winning record from a season that began with so much promise.

"It's absolutely no fun," manager Joe Maddon said. "Everybody is going to look at our record now and think it's been an abysmal season; it has not. We've had a bad couple weeks right now."

Niemann failed for the fourth time to get what's turning out to be an unlucky 13th win. The previous three missed chances were hardly his fault - he pitched seven innings each time and gave up just one or two runs - but this one was as he failed to get through the fifth inning and allowed a career-most 11 hits and matched his season high of six runs.

"He was off with his velocity a bit," Maddon said. "I didn't see any kind of good rhythm out there. He didn't look like he was comfortable. And he just was not making very good pitches."

Niemann, now 12-6, 3.80, said that actually, he was making pitches that were too good.

"I was missing in the heart of the strike zone," he said. "I was throwing a lot of strikes today (61 of 83 pitches), maybe too many. I just kept missing over the middle of the plate."

Niemann's 1652/3 innings are 162/3 more than in any of his first four pro seasons, but neither he nor Maddon considers fatigue an issue.

"I felt good out there," he said. "I don't think I see anything that's going on. It's just one of those days."

The Rays took the 5-0 lead quickly - Pat Burrell had a season-high four RBIs, with a three-run homer and a single - and Maddon was making plans to get Niemann out after five with the lead.

But despite an impressive start - five strikeouts in the first two innings - Niemann didn't get that far: Two singles (one off shortstop Reid Brignac's glove) and a double led to two runs in the third; a double and two singles netted a run in the fourth; a leadoff walk, three singles and a ground ball that led to Willy Aybar's nightly defensive miscue - this one at first base, getting only an out at first on a bases-loaded bouncer - generated three more and a 6-5 Orioles lead.

The offense was shut down from there by Jason Berken (who came in 4-11, 6.02) and the usually flammable Baltimore bullpen, though Maddon pointed to a series of well-struck balls and said, "We didn't hit with any luck."

And the bullpen took it from there and made it worse, Maddon painstakingly employing five relievers and little working out, with submariners Brian Shouse and Chad Bradford allowing matching home runs.

"That's the way things have been going," Burrell said.

Marc Topkin can be reachedat topkin@sptimes.com

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