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Longoria leads Rays’ power surge vs. Twins

July 6, 2011 Comments off

MINNEAPOLIS — All series, Evan Longoria kept hitting the ball hard, but right at someone.

When the hits finally started falling Wednesday afternoon — especially in key late-game situations — it made a big difference for Longoria and the Rays.

After scoring only two runs in the first two games of the series, the Rays put a dozen across in the finale against the Twins, including a four-run eighth inning and a three-run ninth for a 12-5 victory.

“We’ve been battling so far on this road trip,” Longoria said, “and to be able to come through with a hit like that — [which] kind of opened up the floodgates a little bit for us — it’s a pretty good feeling.”

Longoria singled to left in the eighth off Minnesota reliever Alex Burnett, driving in the go-ahead run for Tampa Bay. As if that wasn’t enough, he added a three-run home run in the ninth for good measure — his 11th of the season.

After picking up just three hits, one home run and four RBIs while batting .115 in his previous seven games, Longoria matched those hit, home run and RBI totals in the series finale against the Twins.

His reward for his performance? Sitting out the bottom of the ninth to rest his sore left foot as the Rays closed out the game.

“If he had not hit that home run, he would’ve had to go out in the ninth inning,” manager Joe Maddon said. “But he hit the home run and I got him off his feet.

“I kind of discussed it with him. I didn’t say, ‘If you hit a home run you’re coming out of the game,’ but it kind of worked out that way.”

Rays catcher Kelly Shoppach got the offense going with a two-run homer in the second, and second baseman Sean Rodriguez added another two-run blast in the eighth. Then, Longoria capped the scoring with his ninth-inning blast.

Between the first two home runs, Tampa Bay put two across in the fourth on two hits, two walks and a hit batter. It added another run in the fifth with a walk and two singles that knocked Twins starter Francisco Liriano out of the game.

Liriano went just 4 1/3 innings, giving up five runs on six hits, four walks, three hit batters and four strikeouts.

“He had no command of his fastball, none,” Maddon said of Liriano. “If we had just taken [pitches], we would’ve had a lot of walks, because we were chasing outside the zone. He was not attacking the zone at all.”

Rays leadoff hitter Johnny Damon was hit twice by Liriano — the second knocking him out of the game with a contusion on his left hand. Sam Fuld replaced Damon, going 2-for-3 with a walk.

X-rays on Damon’s hand came back negative, and he is considered day-to-day.

The 12 runs marked the fourth time this season Tampa Bay had reached double digits offensively, and the second time this year in six games at Target Field. Thanks to the breakout performance by the offense, the Rays overcame a less-than-stellar start by right-hander Wade Davis.

“I thought that it was probably some of the worst stuff that I’ve had all year,” Davis said. “But I battled through it … and it’s a good win for us.”

Davis went five innings, giving up four runs (three earned) on nine hits and three walks. He struck out just one batter.

In the crucial eighth inning, Fuld singled with one out and Ben Zobrist followed with a walk. Longoria then plated the go-ahead run with a single, and a safety squeeze scored Zobrist on a bunt by B.J. Upton.

Rodriguez made it a four-run game with his fourth home run of the season. All four runs in the eighth were allowed by reliever Alex Burnett, who took the loss.

“They have some really good hitters. They can do a lot of things,” said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire. “They can handle the bat and they have a couple guys who can pop it.”

After going 0-for-12 with runners in scoring position during the first two games of the series, the Rays were 7-for-14 in those situations Wednesday.

Even with all the offense, though, Maddon was not satisfied with his team’s performance.

“You cannot let those opportunities slip,” Maddon said. “We made a lot of subtle mistakes today that we’ve got to do better with if we expect to go back [to the playoffs] — which we do. We were fortunate to get by today.”

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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Rays notebook, 7/6

July 6, 2011 Comments off

Pickoffs becoming valuable weapon for Shields

MINNEAPOLIS — With two pickoffs in Tuesday night’s game, Rays right-hander James Shields increased his Major League-leading total to 10 on the year.

Shields is the first right-hander to record at least 10 pickoffs in a season since Jack McDowell had 13 for the White Sox in 1993. His 10 pickoffs also are the third-highest total for a right-hander since the stat was first recorded in 1974 — behind McDowell and leader Charlie Hough, who had 16 in ’88.

With nearly half a season remaining, Shields has an excellent chance to pass both McDowell and Hough.

“He works at it, he cares,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “It’s so hard to get pitchers to understand that you could really help yourself — not only just by picking somebody off, [but also] by shortening leads — by causing the other team to do something different because you are good at it. I don’t think enough pitchers spend enough time doing it.”

Shields’ pickoffs came in big situations Wednesday as well, helping him minimize the damage done by the Twins’ offense. In the first, Shields picked Alexi Casilla off at second base, ending the inning and limiting Minnesota to just one run in the frame.

In the fourth, Shields picked Rene Tosoni off first base for the second out of the inning. He then struck out Jason Repko for what essentially amounted to a double play.

“It’s definitely high for me, I didn’t expect to have 10 pickoffs for the year,” Shields said. “But we’re doing a great job with getting the right plays in the right situations. … Pickoffs are always good as a pitcher. It saves you pitches, saves you maybe a couple runs.”

Hand contusion could sideline Damon vs. Yanks

MINNEAPOLIS — Fortunately for Johnny Damon, X-rays showed nothing was broken in his left hand after he was hit by Twins starter Francisco Liriano for the second time Wednesday.

Unfortunately for Damon and the Rays, he could still miss some time in the next series against the Yankees.

“I’m hoping to have a speedy recovery tonight so I can get back in the lineup,” Damon said after Wednesday’s game. “It got me pretty good — probably the worst I’ve gotten in my career, and I’ve taken one off the face before.”

After being hit by two pitches in his first two plate appearances, Damon left the series finale against the Twins with a contusion on his left hand.

Liriano hit Damon to lead off the game and hit him again to begin the third inning. Damon was hit on his left hand the second time, and it was noticeably swollen after the Rays’ 12-5 victory.

“It’s definitely a day-to-day thing,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said Wednesday. “We’ll reevaluate tomorrow. But for right now, there’s a chance — more than likely not tomorrow, but maybe the day after that, or Saturday — that he’d be able to play.”

Damon remained in the game to run the bases in the third, and the veteran designated hitter said he tried to ice his hand and keep the swelling down to stay in the game. Damon was replaced before he was due up in the fourth, as Sam Fuld batted for Damon and walked.

Now, Damon is just hoping the injury only lasts a couple days and doesn’t keep him out until the All-Star break.

“I got lucky,” Damon said. “One inch either way, it could be really bad.”

Rays catcher Kelly Shoppach, who also was Damon’s teammate in 2005 with the Red Sox, said he expects Damon back in the lineup sooner rather than later.

“He’ll be in there [Thursday],” Shoppach said. “Come on, it’s Johnny Damon — 15 straight years, 140-plus games. It won’t be long, if it’s long at all.

“I watched this guy once run into the fence in Fenway, slit his eyelid, had to have stitches on his eyelid — played the next day.”

Foot issue contributing to Longoria’s struggles

MINNEAPOLIS — When third baseman Evan Longoria grounded out to third base in the first inning Tuesday night, he did not exactly fly down the line towards first base.

The reason for that was a nerve issue in his left foot, which has been an occasional problem for Longoria. Manager Joe Maddon said it was just something Longoria is going to have to fight through.

“It’s like a toothache — sometimes it just grabs you the wrong way and it might zing or burn for a moment,” Maddon said. “Then, all of a sudden, it goes back to normal. That’s what he’s got.

“It could hurt him and then go away. That’s pretty much what happened.”

Longoria has not put up his usual numbers all season, and he has especially struggled lately. In his previous seven games before Wednesday, when he went 3-for-4 with a homer and four RBIs, Longoria batted just .115 with two doubles, a home run and four RBIs.

While the foot issue may have been the cause for Longoria’s recent slump, Maddon pointed to the slugger’s early season oblique injury to explain his low numbers through the first half of the 2011 season.

“It began with the oblique … that was a month,” Maddon said. “By not playing for that first month, I think that really set him back. He’s been trying to play catch-up ever since.”

Maddon said he was not concerned with Longoria’s numbers, and the skipper believes that the bigger concern was his third baseman getting over the nerve issue in his left foot as quickly as possible.

If nothing else, not making the All-Star Game and struggling through the first half of the season could serve to help the long-term growth of the young Rays star.

“I’m sure it serves as motivation for him,” Maddon said. “I know he’s not been up to his standards, but he’s still a pretty good baseball player regardless. He still does some great things for us.”

Damon surprised by final out call Tuesday

MINNEAPOLIS — As he hit first base in the ninth inning Tuesday night, Johnny Damon was sure he was safe. In fact, he was already thinking about the fact that he had brought the Rays’ hottest hitter — Ben Zobrist — to the plate with the bases loaded.

Or so he thought.

Damon was shocked that he was called out, but what really surprised him was the way first-base umpire Gary Darling made the call — very matter-of-fact, with no emotion.

“The umpire walked off like it wasn’t even a close play, like I was going to get called out regardless,” Damon said. “Normally on a bang-bang play, you’ve got to try to sell it. When there was no emotion, I thought for sure he was calling me safe. [The Twins’ players] looked pretty stunned, too. The Twins were kind of laughing and saying they got one. And unfortunately for us, it happened to be in a key situation of the game.”

Rays manager Joe Maddon said before Wednesday’s game that he agreed Damon could have been safe.

Maddon also said he thought Darling had a good game Tuesday night as the first-base umpire.

“I thought he made a lot of good calls,” Maddon said. “So the last play of the game — that probably was the closest out of all the tough calls he had yesterday.”

As for the emotion — or lack of it — Maddon was not surprised by that, either.

“[Darling] was the same way on the other three [close] plays,” Maddon said. “If you look at the replays of the other three plays — very matter-of-fact safe, very matter-of-fact safe, very matter-of-fact out.”

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

Shields struggles early in loss to Twins

July 5, 2011 Comments off

MINNEAPOLIS — Like fellow All-Star David Price did a day earlier, right-hander James Shields struggled early Tuesday before settling in.

Also like Price, Shields received minimal run support as the Rays dropped their second straight to the Twins in a 3-2 loss at Target Field.

“You’ve got to score more than two runs to win,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “We got to get off the schneid with our offense. We’ve got to be more consistent.”

Shields opened his start giving up a single and double, with Twins leadoff hitter Ben Revere eventually scoring on a grounder to third by Michael Cuddyer. In the third, Shields allowed two more runs, as Revere led off with a single and Alexi Casilla followed with a walk.

Two batters later, Cuddyer singled to right and a fielding error by right fielder Matt Joyce allowed both runners to score on the play.

“I kind of noticed that he got jammed off the bat,” Joyce said. “It was one of those in between plays [and] I didn’t know if I was going to be able to catch it. So I came in hard and tried to make a play on it. I realized at the last second that I wasn’t going to be able to catch it, so I tried to slow up and stop it, but it kind of skipped on me and went right under my glove.”

Along with Joyce’s play, the decision by third baseman Evan Longoria to throw to first on Cuddyer’s first-inning grounder, instead of throwing home, allowed the Twins first run to score.

“Longo had an option of throwing home or throwing to first base,” Maddon said. “I think he could’ve had the runner at home.”

Entering the game tied for the American League lead with a .987 fielding percentage, the Rays have been strong defensively all season.

But in a tight game on Tuesday, a couple missed plays made a big difference.

“Those are two runs there that we could’ve gotten,” Maddon said. “But again, when you lose a 3-2 game, you’re going to dissect a lot of these little minutiae of the game. We need to be able to outhit some mistakes on occasion too.”

In his first start after being named an All-Star, Shields went six innings, allowing three runs (two earned) on six hits. He also had five strikeouts against three walks and picked off two runners.

Shields faced just one batter over the minimum in his last four innings of work.

“I was fighting myself the whole entire game,” Shields said. “I minimized my damage the best I could. Unfortunately, it wasn’t good enough tonight. It is frustrating. I think overall we’re pitching the ball pretty well, we just need that timely hitting. Sometimes, that’s just the way the game goes.”

Twins starter Scott Baker was dominant through five innings, giving up just one unearned run on three hits and one walk with three strikeouts.

After tossing only 62 pitches, Baker left due to a mild right elbow strain. Baker said he began to feel discomfort in the third, but did not leave until after the fifth.

“Probably the last couple innings I was just trying to spot up and hit my spots,” Baker said. “I don’t think it affected my pitching by any means. It was just uncomfortable. Honestly, I almost didn’t say anything and continued to pitch, but it’s just not smart.”

The Rays did not fare much better against the Twins bullpen, though, as they managed just one run on four hits over the last four innings.

Final Vote candidate Ben Zobrist was the biggest bright spot offensively for the Rays, going 3-for-4 with a double and a stolen base. Zobrist also scored a run on a Twins’ error.

The Rays made things interesting against Twins closer Matt Capps in the ninth, forcing him out of the game in favor of lefty Glen Perkins.

B.J. Upton led off the inning with a solo homer to left, and Casey Kotchman singled to bring the potential tying run to the plate with none out. Capps then got Sean Rodriguez and Sam Fuld to fly out, but walked Kelly Shoppach.

Perkins came in and got Johnny Damon to ground out to end the game. Replays showed Damon appeared to have beaten the throw to first, which would have brought Zobrist to the plate with the bases loaded.

“Did you guys see the replays?” Damon asked reporters. “I felt like it was pretty obvious. … I crossed the bag, I was like, ‘This is awesome, we’re getting our hottest hitter up here.’ Then as you could see in my reaction, I was stunned.”

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

Rays notebook, 7/5

July 5, 2011 Comments off

Brignac out of lineup, awaits better matchups

MINNEAPOLIS — For the third straight game, shortstop Reid Brignac was out of the Rays lineup Tuesday against the Twins.

Rays manager Joe Maddon said it had to do with matchups, and that Brignac could sit out again Wednesday at Target Field.

“Baker, 0-for-7 with five strikeouts,” Maddon said, referring to Brignac’s numbers against Twins right-hander Scott Baker. “Left-hander yesterday, left-hander tomorrow, [Kyle] Lohse was almost a reverse guy for him, it was a bad matchup for him. The cards have been bad for him.”

Brignac has struggled at the plate this season, batting just .187 with 41 strikeouts and only three extra-base hits.

Over his last 12 games, Brignac has been hitting better, though, posting a .250 batting average with a .351 on-base percentage. He’s had eight hits, three runs scored, five walks and an RBI over that stretch.

After opening the season as a guy Maddon expected to play everyday, Brignac is likely to sit out more frequently in the second half when the matchups are not in his favor. But Maddon did say Brignac should see more time against the Yankees due to good matchups and past success in the Bronx.

“We’re trying to get him back on solid ground where he’s feeling good about his offense,” Maddon said. “I really want to put him in situations where I think he has a better chance to be successful.”

Damon among impressive all-time legends

MINNEAPOLIS — With every hit, Johnny Damon seems to pass a baseball legend on the career hits list.

After going 1-for-4 in Monday’s game, Damon entered Tuesday’s game just one hit shy of tying Nellie Fox for 68th on the career hit list. Over the weekend, Damon passed Lave Cross, Harry Heilmann and Ted Williams.

Looking at the all-time doubles leaders, the names Damon is on the verge of passing are even more impressive. Damon is one double away from tying Andre Dawson for 50th on the all-time list, two behind Roberto Alomar and three back of Tony Perez.

With four doubles, Damon would tie Babe Ruth at 506 doubles for 47th all-time.

Count Rays manager Joe Maddon among those impressed by Damon’s accomplishments.

“Since he’s been here, I’ve been more aware of the all the things he’s about to accomplish,” Maddon said. “As an adversary, I didn’t know all that stuff in the past. All the names that keep popping up are really pretty impressive.”

Even at age 37 and after 17 seasons, Damon has been one of the Rays’ best hitters this season, entering Tuesday’s game hitting .283 with nine home runs and 41 RBIs.

“He’s going to keep going, he’s got a couple more years left in him, there’s no doubt in my mind,” Maddon said. “He keeps himself in great shape. But I think the way he approaches the day permits it to happen also.”

Maddon: All-Star chance good for Farnsworth

MINNEAPOLIS — Rays manager Joe Maddon reiterated Tuesday that he still thinks closer Kyle Farnsworth has a good chance to be added to the American League All-Star roster.

With a number of pitchers unable to pitch in the All-Star Game who will need to be replaced on the AL squad — including Rays starter James Shields — Farnsworth is among those who could be named as a replacement.

Maddon has not heard anything yet about whether Farnsworth will be added to the roster, but said that does not mean it cannot still happen. He noted that he did not hear about Rafael Soriano being named until it happened.

“I have gotten no calls whatsoever,” Maddon said. “I have to believe that they have guys in mind.”

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

Missed chances hurt Rays against Twins

July 4, 2011 Comments off

MINNEAPOLIS — Early in Monday’s game, the Rays were hitting the ball hard, and it looked as though they would have their way with Twins lefty Brian Duensing.

But in the fifth, Duensing took control and cruised for his second career shutout. He shut down the Rays throughout the game but was especially impressive late in the Rays’ 7-0 loss to the Twins at Target Field.

“We had chances, and I really thought we were swinging the bats well early,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Once we got to about the fifth inning, I think it was, we stopped hitting anything well. But we had our moments.”

One of those moments came in the first inning.

Johnny Damon led off the game with a single, and Sean Rodriguez followed with another. After Evan Longoria flied out to left, B.J. Upton walked to load the bases with one out.

The Rays were in position to take an early lead, but Duensing got Justin Ruggiano to ground into an inning-ending double play instead.

An inning later, Casey Kotchman singled to lead off the inning, but Duensing quickly got two outs on another double-play ball from Kelly Shoppach.

The last of the Rays’ chances came in the fourth. Upton led off with a single but was called out as he attempted to steal second base. Replays showed that he may have beaten the tag.

“If that play had been called differently, it could’ve been a different moment for us right there,” Maddon said.

Kotchman followed with a single that would likely have scored Upton, and Shoppach then walked, setting up an opportunity for All-Star right fielder Matt Joyce to deliver a two-out RBI. Joyce hit the ball hard toward the hole on the right side, but Alexi Casilla made a diving stop at second base to save a run.

Had Joyce hit the ball a foot or two in either direction, it could have been the start of a rally.

“Yeah, absolutely, I think it might have got us going,” Joyce said. “Obviously, it would have put a run on the board. I don’t know if it would have scored two, but you know what? We hit a lot of balls hard today, [we] just hit them right at ’em.”

Whereas the Rays were unable to take advantage of their early opportunities, the Twins jumped on lefty David Price in the second.

With a runner on and one out in the second, Price gave up a single, a walk and a double to the bottom third of the Twins’ order, putting three runs on the board. In the fourth, he surrendered a solo home run to fellow All-Star Michael Cuddyer, a 443-foot blast into the second deck in left.

Price finished the afternoon with four runs allowed on five hits, six strikeouts and one walk. After Cuddyer’s home run, he settled in nicely, retiring nine in a row and 11 of the last 12 batters he faced.

“It’s disappointing,” Price said. “I got outpitched. … I felt like I threw the ball fine, [but] it’s not good enough. I gave up four runs in six innings.”

As did Price, Duensing looked much better in the second half of his outing than in the first.

After walking Elliot Johnson to lead off the fifth, Duensing retired 10 batters in a row and 15 of the last 16 Rays to come to the plate. Over the last five innings, the Rays had just two baserunners, one on Johnson’s walk and the other on an eighth-inning single by Rodriguez.

“It’s frustrating,” Joyce said. “It’s frustrating to keep going and keep grinding through it.

“For me it’s been a frustrating month. You hit hard balls right at people, and they don’t fall, and then your next at-bat, they make a perfect pitch or something, or you miss your pitch. It’s just one of those things. You really have to grind it out.”

While the Rays were struggling to even reach base late in the game, Twins third baseman Danny Valencia connected for a three-run blast off right-hander Adam Russell in the eighth, giving Duensing even more wiggle room when as he returned for the ninth.

Duensing, who beat the Rays in April at Tropicana Field, delivered his best outing of the season, giving up just six hits over nine shutout innings, walking four and recording seven. Against the Rays this season, hw is 2-0 with a 1.13 ERA, having allowed just two runs in 16 innings.

It was his second career shutout, with the other coming on Aug. 14, 2010, when he tossed a three-hitter against the A’s.

“I was real excited [with] how it turned out,” Duensing said. “It didn’t start as well as I wanted it to. But the defense made great plays behind me to keep me in it. And the next thing you know, the offense started scoring runs against David Price, who has pretty good stuff.”

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

Rays notebook, 7/4

July 4, 2011 Comments off

Final Vote candidate Zobrist gets a break 

MINNEAPOLIS — On Monday, one day after being named a candidate for the All-Star Game Final Vote Sponsored by Sprint, second baseman Ben Zobrist got a day off to rest.

It was Zobrist’s first day out of the lineup since May 22, and just the third time this season that he has not been on manager Joe Maddon’s lineup card.

“[He has] just a little bit of a head cold kind of thing,” Maddon said. “He could’ve played, but we talked about it and I said, ‘I don’t think it’s a good idea.’ I’ve been looking to give him a day off anyway, so this is almost perfect.”

In 83 games, Zobrist has batted .256 with a .342 on-base percentage and 27 doubles, which ties him with Red Sox first baseman Adrian Gonzalez for the Major League lead.

As Zobrist rested, third baseman Evan Longoria was back in the lineup after sitting out on Sunday for the first time in nearly a month.

“These guys have been playing every day and doing a good job of it,” Maddon said. “They’ve been grinding it out well, but we’ve got to take care of them at some point. I know the break’s coming up, but I want us to finish strong in the first half, too.”

Maddon pondering post-All-Star break rotation

MINNEAPOLIS — Manager Joe Maddon has thought about the club’s first two games after the All-Star break, but he has yet to settle on who will take the mound against the Red Sox.

It could be All-Stars David Price and James Shields on an extra day of rest each, but Price’s participation in the All-Star Game could alter that plan. Shields will not pitch for the American League, so he remains likely to pitch in one of those games against Boston.

“It could switch up, but we’re still debating a couple of things,” Maddon said. “Shields is good, but [the question is] how David gets utilized.”

Maddon expects to talk with AL manager Ron Washington by the end of the week regarding Price and how Washington plans to use him.

He definitely expects the lefty to see some action against the National League.

Rays poised to witness history

MINNEAPOLIS — On their current road trip, the Rays will face two players — Jim Thome and Derek Jeter — on the verge of reaching major milestones.

As the Rays opened a series against the Twins on Monday, Thome sat just five home runs away from being the eighth player in Major League history to hit 600. And as he rejoined the Yankees on Monday after spending nearly three weeks on the disabled list, Jeter was just six hits shy of becoming the 28th member of the 3,000-hit club.

So the pregame question for manager Joe Maddon was, Which accomplishment is more impressive?

“I’d say probably 600 home runs is more difficult to achieve,” Maddon said. “If you look at the number of 3,000-hit guys, does that exceed the number of 600-home run guys? I’m going to say from that perspective, I think that would be the one way to look at it.

“But both are awesome accomplishments, and [they are] both really deserving, classy individuals. I’ve got a lot of respect for both guys.”

The other question was what Maddon thought about having either milestone come against his ballclub.

Maddon was there on Sept. 6, 1995, when Cal Ripken Jr. played in his 2,131st consecutive game, passing Lou Gehrig for the all-time record. Then the Angels’ bench coach, Maddon saw the Orioles get a boost from Ripken’s accomplishment.

“My biggest concern with that was the momentum, or the energy about the team because of that happening,” he said. “That’s my bigger concern. It’s not the fact that he may get it against us, it’s all the complementary surrounding components that may benefit the Yankees or may benefit the Twins if that were to happen against us.”

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

Niemann, Zobrist lead Rays to series sweep

April 28, 2011 Comments off

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.