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Niemann, Zobrist lead Rays to series sweep

April 28, 2011

MINNEAPOLIS — He may not have gotten the no-hitter, or the shutout, but Jeff Niemann pitched his best game of the season Thursday night against the Twins.

Niemann held the Twins hitless through six innings while facing the minimum until Denard Span singled on a soft liner just beyond the reach of Elliot Johnson at shortstop to lead off the seventh. Span would come around to score on a single later in the inning, but those two hits would be the only ones of the night for the Twins as the Rays won, 6-1, at Target Field.

“It was a great game and everything was clicking,” Niemann said. “This is a huge confidence boost. It’s something that I needed. The team’s been playing so well and I felt like I was that guy that was kind of stopping the momentum the whole time.

“It’s great to keep the momentum going and just get a win. It’s great.”

With the two games on the schedule Thursday, Rays manager Joe Maddon swapped the order of Niemann and right-hander Jeremy Hellickson based on statistical research. Niemann has traditionally pitched much better at night than in day games, and the switch paid off for the Rays, as they completed the series sweep.

Before the game, the Rays had a feeling Niemann was on the verge of getting back on track, especially with the way his bullpen session went earlier in the week. After struggling through his first four starts of the season, Niemann finally broke through Thursday to pick up his first win since Sept. 24, 2010.

“It was very big, because that really can get him back in a groove,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “From a couple years ago he’s taught us that he may struggle a bit, but when he catches fire, he gets really hot. Hopefully this is the game that’s going to catapult him. He looked more like he had prior to his injury last year.”

Including Niemann’s performance, Rays starters have pitched seven or more innings in 12 of the club’s last 15 games. Their ability to pitch deep in games was even more important this week against the Twins, as a short start could have taxed their bullpen with Thursday’s pair of contests and three more games this weekend.

Even with his near no-hit performance, though, Niemann still had to share the spotlight in the nightcap with Ben Zobrist, who had a career day at the plate.

Zobrist, who had a four-hit, eight-RBI performance in the day’s first game, continued to swing a hot bat in the nightcap. He wasted little time adding to his RBI total for the day, belting a two-run homer in his first at-bat of game.

With 10 RBIs on the day, Zobrist was three shy of the Major League record for RBIs in one day, according to Baseball Almanac.

“This must be what it’s like to feel like Sam Fuld,” Zobrist quipped. “I really had no idea what was happening. I just was kind of in the zone and just trying not to think about it too much. Just go up there and have good at-bats, and I just felt real comfortable, obviously, in the box.”

In the sixth and eighth innings, Zobrist led off with a single and a double, and later came around to score. He finished 8-for-14 in the series with two home runs, three doubles, a triple, 13 RBIs — one more than he had upon arriving in Minnesota — and six runs scored.

With his 10 RBIs over the two games, Zobrist now leads the league with 25 RBIs, after coming into the day tied for 13th in the Majors with 15 RBIs. Zobrist’s 10 RBIs in one day is the most since Garret Anderson had 10 in one game for the Angels on Aug. 21, 2007, against the Yankees.

Zobrist has 18 RBIs over his last five games. The last player to accomplish that feat was Sammy Sosa in 2002, from Aug. 10-14. Sosa also had 20 over five games from Aug. 8-12 the same year. The last American League player to have 18 RBIs over five games was Reggie Jackson, from June 14-18, 1969.

With 25 RBIs this month, Zobrist set a new Rays club record for the most RBIs in April, surpassing four others who had previously set the mark at 24.

“We’ve seen guys have great days before and that’s what this game is all about,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. “The guy came up in a lot of big situations and he was swinging the bat pretty well today. We pitched him inside and outside, we threw changeups and breaking balls, and he hit pretty much everything we threw up there.

“Every mistake, he killed it. It was a hell of a series for him, but a lot of guys got on base for him.”

Johnny Damon also extended his hit streak in the game, singling in the third inning to put his run at 16 straight games. Damon was 4-for-9 in the two games Thursday, with three runs scored and a triple.

As the Rays continued to roll, Maddon improved to 418-417 over his career with the club, marking just the second time he has owned a winning record at the end of a day as Rays skipper, the other coming when he was 7-6 in his first season at the helm, on April 16, 2006.

With the series sweep, their first of the season, the Rays improved to 14-11, while pushing their record since April 10 to a Major League best 13-3.

“We played well in all components of the game,” Maddon said. “Pitching was great, defense was spectacular, we started hitting the ball with a lot more regularity, and really hit the ball hard and well. Just good at-bats. That’s about as well as we’ve played for three consecutive games this year.”

Jordan Schelling is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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