Maddon trumpets Niemann's progress

Maddon trumpets Niemann's progress

ANAHEIM -- Joe Maddon looks at Jeff Niemann these days and the Rays manager sees quite a difference.

"It's two different guys from Day 1 this year in Baltimore to where we're at right now," Maddon said. "... I watched him on the mound, and he's got a nice routine going for him. You're at the point right now where you like your chances of winning when he pitches."

Maddon referred to Niemann's first outing of the season, when he allowed five runs in the first inning of an April 11 loss at Camden Yards. Since then, the 6-foot-9, 280-pound right-hander has come on strong to where he currently leads the team with 10 wins.

"I'm a lot [more confident] compared to the beginning of the year," Niemann said. "It's starting to come together, and we're kind of gelling as a group here. And it's good to have that confidence when we go out there and play."

The 26-year-old rookie will be making his 21st start of season on Wednesday. In addition to leading the team in wins, he ranks second on the staff with a 3.73 ERA. He is 8-2 with a 3.13 ERA in his last 14 starts since May 13.

Niemann can be intimidating on the mound, but Maddon believes his intimidation is rooted in what he's doing with his pitches rather than simply his size.

"I think the intimidation factor as he's gone along is the better strike throwing with the velocity down in the zone," Maddon said. "And then they see his curveball, and I think hitters are really uncomfortable with him."

Maddon could talk all night about the abnormal angle in which Niemann's pitches arrive at home plate.

"I think that's where the intimidation lies," Maddon said. "And I also believe that if you're hitting now from the other dugout, you see that he's in control of himself, and that works in his favor and against the other team. He's done a nice job with all that stuff."

Pitching matchup
TB: RHP Jeff Niemann (10-5, 3.73 ERA)
Niemann coasted through his first six innings on Friday against the Mariners, allowing just two hits and one run. At one point, he retired 17 of 18 batters. But he lost his rhythm in the seventh, and it ended up costing him (four earned runs) and his team (an 11th-inning, 7-6 loss). "He got a little quick there," manager Joe Maddon said of Niemann's fateful seventh. Despite the no-decision, Niemann is 8-2 with a 3.13 ERA in his 14 starts since May 13. He has just one appearance against the Angels, on June 10, when he went 3 2/3 innings, allowing seven hits and four earned runs in a 9-4 Rays win.

LAA: RHP Trevor Bell (Major League debut)
Bell, a 22-year-old right-hander born in North Hollywood, Calif., is expected to get his big shot in his Major League debut. Bell has raised his stock immensely with his best professional season after spending his first four years climbing no higher than Class A. He has improved the command of his fastball, along with his offspeed stuff. Bell was lifted after two innings in his start on Saturday for Triple-A Salt Lake against Memphis, having allowed two hits but no runs. He's 3-4 with a 3.15 ERA in 11 starts in the Pacific Coast League after going 4-3 with a 2.23 ERA to start the season at Double-A Arkansas. Bell was a 2005 compensation pick in the First-Year Player Draft, No. 37 overall, out of Crescenta Valley High School in Southern California.

Tidbits
Monday night Jason Bartlett became only the second Rays player to record a double, triple and home run in the same game. Eric Hinske was the first on April 22, 2008 vs. Toronto. ... Evan Longoria tied his "career high" (2008 total) in doubles with his 31st Monday night. ... Carl Crawford has broken into the Top 100 all-time in steals -- he ranks 98th with 355. ... The Rays are looking to become just the second team to reach 200 home runs and 200 steals in the same season (1996 Rockies). ... Entering Tuesday night's game, 35 percent of Carlos Pena's hits have been home runs (29 of 83), which ranks as the highest percentage in the Major Leagues, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. ... On the next "Inside the Rays," FOX Sports Florida and Sun Sports will give viewers an inside look at the life and responsibilities of a Major League manager. "The Art of Managing" premieres on FOX Sports Florida on Friday night at 10:30 ET, immediately following the Blue Jays at Rays telecast, with encore presentations scheduled to air on both networks.

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Up next
• Thursday: Off-day
• Friday: Rays (James Shields, 7-8, 3.79) vs. Blue Jays (TBD), 7:38 p.m. ET
• Saturday: Rays (Scott Kazmir, 6-7, 6.50) vs. Blue Jays (TBD), 7:08 p.m. ET

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.