For the most part, Jeff Niemann had an uneventful return to the Rays’ rotation. The right-hander threw six scoreless innings allowing four hits and three walks. He struck out five batters and did not face much adversity until his pitch count piled up in a 36-pitch sixth inning. After striking out Nyjer Morgan to start the inning – a strikeout that also resulted in the ejections of batting coach Dale Sveum and Brewers’ manager Ron Roenicke –Niemann allowed a single and two walks to load the bases with one out.
The run expectancy as Mark Kotsay walked to the plate was about a run and a half. With the Rays clinging to a one run lead, Niemann would need to keep the ball on the infield or reach back for a strikeout to keep the lead intact. It appears as if Niemann studied the book of pitching 2.0 in his absence as he started several hitters with first pitch breaking balls. Kotsay – in the sixth inning – was one of those batters.
Niemann started the veteran outfielder with a curveball on the inside corner for a called strike one. He jumped ahead 0-2 before Kotsay took a ball on a high fastball. On the fourth pitch of the at-bat, the Tampa Bay righty tossed a knee-buckling curveball on the outside corner for a called third strike.
With two outs, Niemann faced Yuniesky Betancourt – arguably one of the worst hitters in baseball and one with poor plate discipline. Nevertheless, Betancourt worked a 3-1 count in his favor and was one errant pitch away from tying the ball game without having put the ball in play. Niemann still lacked downward movement on his fastball and fell behind on some elevated heaters. On the fifth pitch of the at-bat, he threw another fastball near the top of the zone that was too enticing for Betancourt to take. A lazy flyball to Ben Zobrist ended the threat and the night for Niemann.
The process was okay. The execution needs work. Meanwhile, the result cannot be argued with. In the toughest spot of the game, Niemann did his job. As Kotsay entered the batter’s box, win probability had the Brewers with a 56.6% chance of coming away with a victory. As Niemann walked tall off the mound having allowed nothing to the opposition, the Rays held a 68.6% of ending the night victorious.