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NIEMANN TRIES TO FOCUS ON THE NOW

RHP Jeff Niemann will have at least a couple more starts, including tonight against the Mariners, to make his case for the AL rookie of the year award.

"It'd be a huge deal, it is a big deal," Niemann said. "I'm doing my best to keep it out of my thought process as much as I can, because there's enough going on to think about anything else. So I'm just trying to keep it simple."

Niemann (12-6, 3.80), the staff leader in wins, has been so consistent this season that manager Joe Maddon has had a hard time remembering his bad starts.

But Niemann would agree that his last outing was disappointing, when he gave up six runs and 11 hits in 41/3 innings, squandering a 5-0 lead in Baltimore. The 6-foot-9 Texan has done well all season making adjustments but wasn't his typical self against the Orioles, leaving too many balls up in the zone.

It was just the third time since May 2 he gave up more than four earned runs.

"I just threw it to the heart of the plate," Niemann said. "Instead of being on the corners and making pitches, I was missing over the plate, and they were hitting them good."

Maddon noted that Niemann's velocity was down a bit, which made it more difficult for him to get away with any mistakes. But he also didn't seen the comfort on the mound that Niemann usually displays.

"He's a young man, still a work in progress," Maddon said. "He's not going to be perfect. Nobody is."

Niemann is confident he'll make the adjustment this time, and even with the potential for postseason accolades ahead, he's staying in the moment.

"I'm still trying to go out there like I'm trying to earn that spot, earn everything that comes with being a starting pitcher," Niemann said. "I'm taking nothing for granted."

HIGH PRAISE: LF Carl Crawford may still trail Red Sox CF Jacoby Ellsbury for the American League stolen base lead, but Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston says Crawford is the most disruptive baserunner in the league.

"I think we should just cut him off at the pass when he gets on," Gaston said. "Throw the ball to third."

Crawford, going for his fifth AL stolen base crown in the past seven years, is one shy of 60, which would make him just the third player in the AL this decade to reach that plateau. Ellsbury has 63 this year and the Angels' Chone Figgins had 62 in 2005.

"Bobby Bonds could steal 'em standing," Gaston said. "Outside of managing Rickey (Henderson), I've never seen anyone like Crawford."

EVERYDAY GUY: Though Maddon has rested some regulars down the stretch, 3B Evan Longoria has stayed in the lineup. Longoria has played in all but five of the Rays' games, and Maddon said he wants him to stay in there the rest of the way, "as much as he can chew."

Maddon said he can envision a day when Longoria, who had a left hamstring injury earlier this season, plays the full 162-game slate.

"Obviously the legs look a lot better, and I think he learned a good lesson also in regards to offseason conditioning coming into this year - making sure that doesn't happen to him again," Maddon said. "So yeah, he could be that guy."

NEXT BIG THING: Those who've watched rookies Niemann, RHP Wade Davis and LHP David Price make an impact with the Rays this season can get a look tonight at their next top pitching prospect in line. RHP Jeremy Hellickson takes the mound for Durham as it plays Memphis for the Triple-A Baseball National Championship tonight at 7, televised live on ESPN2. Hellickson was the Rays' minor-league pitcher of the year.

"He's definitely going to be someone down the road to look forward to," LHP J.P. Howell said. "With the guys we have here already, it seems like a continuous thing of great pitching coming through this minor-league system and up here."

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

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