Spring training | Rays' Jeff Niemann fights what has become annual battle to make rotation

Righty welcomes annual struggle to make Rays' rotation

adell@bradenton.comMarch 15, 2013 

SARASOTA -- For Jeff Niemann, the battle never ends.

It seems every year he is either one step closer to his goal or one step away from the guillotine.

This spring is no different for Tampa Bay's big right-hander. He is fighting for the fifth spot in the Rays' pitching-rich rotation, and if he doesn't make it he could wind up anywhere, including another team.

Last year, the 6-foot-9 Niemann battled Wade Davis and earned a rotation spot. But before you could say May 15th, he broke his fibula and was shut down for three-and-a-half months.

Niemann returned ever so briefly on Sept. 1 and felt something wrong with his right arm, so the Rays closed him down for the season.

So now it's Niemann vs. Roberto Hernandez or misfortune or anyone else who comes to mind.

It has hardened the 30-year-old. He knows not to let things bother him or let himself get too high or too low.

"Baseball is definitely a present game. It's where we are today. Good or bad, the past doesn't matter. Today is a new day, and you got to do it all over again," Niemann said after pitching 4 1/3 solid innings against the Baltimore Orioles on Thursday at Ed Smith Stadium during the Rays' 4-3 victory.

Niemann made a case for himself, though his critics might question his velocity. He allowed four hits, but two never left the infield and a third was a bloop single. He struck out three and walked three.

Niemann threw 71 pitches, and the radar gun had him topping out at about 86 mph. He questioned the gun's accuracy, but noted that it wasn't important on this day because he was working on his breaking stuff.

Niemann has had a lot of good days and years. It's a reason he is 38-8 as a starter when the Rays score at least three runs.

You would think he wouldn't have to prove himself anymore, but Niemann knows he is in a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business.

"After being through this a few times, you kind of understand what's important," Niemann said. "You understand what you can control and what you can't control, and that is the biggest thing. After doing this a few springs, it's more important for me to get back to me. If I can be myself out there and pitch the way I can pitch, then everything else will fall how it should."

Rays manager Joe Maddon admires Niemann's toughness but is not about to name him the fifth starter yet, especially with Hernandez having a good spring.

"He got hurt last year and then we acquired more guys, but he gets it," Maddon said. "He understands how it works, and he has not complained. It (the situation) might bring out the best of him. He is a candidate (for the starting rotation). We don't have fifth guys. He didn't have that normal velocity, but the thing I liked is that the ball continues to move so much."

Hernandez has been throwing in the mid-90s this spring, but his other numbers aren't noticeably different.

"We were throwing lots of cutters and two-seams and definitely going for a lot more movement," Niemann said. "We were able to execute and get those bad swings and weak-hit balls, and for me it's more important what the hitters are telling me than what the radar gun says."

The Rays also got a nice performance out of Josh Lueke. In two innings, the right-hander didn't allow a base runner and struck out two.

"He is pitching with a lot more confidence right now, and that's the biggest difference with him," Maddon said of Lueke. "His delivery has gotten better, and he has thrown his fast ball for a strike and has a great change-up and a breaking ball."

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