Sunday, June 26, 2011

Rays-Astros Preview

Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon hopes the way Jeff Niemann pitched in his first start in more than a month will set the tone for a successful remainder of the season for the Rays right-hander.
Niemann looks to build on his latest effort while trying to help the Rays complete a three-game sweep of the struggling Houston Astros on Sunday at Minute Maid Park.
After spending 45 days on the disabled list with a strained lower back, Niemann (2-4, 4.82 ERA) allowed
four hits and struck out five in six scoreless innings of an 8-4 win at Milwaukee on Monday in his first action since May 4.
"To pitch that well really gets you going in the right direction, no question about that," Maddon said. "I'd like to believe what he did is going to bolster his confidence a bit and get him ready for the next outing."
Niemann, 25-14 the previous two seasons, is just happy to be back on the mound for a Tampa Bay club that has won seven of eight - all against NL opponents.
"The biggest thing is it's just nice to be back and be a contributing member of the team again," he said.
Niemann provided a strong contribution when he gave up two runs and four hits in seven innings of the Rays' 4-2 win at Houston on May 22, 2010.
He will try to help the Rays (43-34) win their fourth in a row following Saturday's 7-2 victory. Tampa Bay has won four straight at Minute Maid Park, where the Astros have dropped a season-high five in a row and 13 of 15.
"I don't think right now anybody is really standing out, we're just getting hits at the right time," said B.J. Upton, who homered for the second straight game.
Casey Kotchman had three hits and Wade Davis threw seven strong innings for Tampa Bay, which has averaged 5.4 runs during a 4-1 road trip.
"This game is tough no matter who you play," said third baseman Evan Longoria, 4 for 8 with five RBIs in the series. "We've done a really good job on this road trip."
Kotchman is batting .393 (11 for 28) his last seven games and is 3 for 7 with a double and homer against scheduled starter J.A. Happ (3-9, 5.33), who makes his first start against the Rays looking for his first win since May 14.
The left-hander allowed seven runs and eight hits in 2 2-3 innings of an 8-3 loss at Texas on Monday to fall to 0-5 with a 5.25 ERA in his last seven starts.
"Good pitchers get out of those kinds of things," Happ told the Astros' official website. "In the past I have, and I take pride in overcoming those kinds of things. It just seems like I've been struggling to a little bit."
Hunter Pence and Carlos Lee each had an RBI on Saturday for the Astros (28-50), who have totaled 15 runs while losing five of six. Lee had two hits, but is batting .167 (4 for 24) his last six games.
A lifetime .298 hitter at Minute Maid Park, Pence has batted just .211 (4 for 19) with five RBIs in five home games versus Tampa Bay.

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