But reality came back to the Rays in the eighth inning, as the Tigers rallied, using a three-run homer from Placido Polanco to snatch a 4-3 win Sunday afternoon at Comerica Park with a crowd of 36,067 watching.
"We just let it get away," Rays manager Joe Maddon said.
By losing, the Tampa Bay fell to 3-3 on its current seven-game road trip and was pushed further behind in the American League Wild Card race. The Red Sox took a 7-0 win over the Blue Jays to extend their lead over the Rays to 5 1/2 games, with just 33 games remaining.
"It's no fun," said Maddon about his team's expanding deficit. "But you just keep going along. You keep plugging along playing one at a time. We get to play [the Red Sox] plenty. We just have to come back tomorrow and win the last game here to have a pretty good road trip."
Niemann looked dominating at times, using his fastball command -- including a wicked two-seamer -- to set up his breaking pitches, and he seemed well on his way to his 13th win of the season. Entering the bottom of the eighth, Niemann had allowed just one run on four hits. But Clete Thomas hit a leadoff double and Niemann was lifted in favor of Grant Balfour.
Balfour looked strong, popping the radar gun at 95-96 mph, which served him well in getting the first two outs of the inning before facing Curtis Granderson with Thomas at third.
Granderson hits left-handed and has 25 home runs on the season, which inspired Maddon to instruct the right-handed Balfour to pitch around Granderson to face Placido Polanco.
"I felt good about having Grant on Polanco there," Maddon said. "Based on what I'd seen in the series, I thought Grant matched up well with him. He's a good ballplayer, Polanco is."
Balfour got a bad vibe from his instruction.
"I don't want to pitch around Granderson, to be honest," Balfour said. "I feel like I'm pitching on the defensive then. Wish I'd never got that in my head. I challenged the first two guys and then I'm pitching around [Granderson], then I kind of went on the defensive, and that's when I got hurt."
Granderson walked to bring Polanco to the plate, carrying an 0-for-13 stretch along with him. Balfour fell behind, 2-0, before leaving a fastball over the wrong part of the plate. Polanco swung and drove the ball to deep left field.
Initially, Carl Crawford appeared to have a chance to make the catch as he did in the All-Star Game in St. Louis, but once he made a last-second leap for the ball, it was clear the ball was out of his range and the Tigers had a 4-3 lead.
"At first, off the bat, I thought it was going to be just a regular fly ball at the wall, but it just kept going," Crawford said. "I just jumped as high as I could, reached over the wall, still couldn't get it. It just kept carrying. I was just trying to time it right, hoping that it didn't carry too far. But it did. The ball was carrying that way today."
Polanco watched and hoped for the best.
"I knew the wind was blowing out," Polanco said. "When I hit it, I knew it had a chance, but I was kind of blowing it, pushing it, like, 'Go, go, please.' [Crawford] really climbed that wall. I thought he had a chance."
A sullen Balfour expressed his frustration about the result.
"Niemann pitches a great game, I go in and get two quick outs, and [Polanco] hits a bomb like that," Balfour said. "It makes you feel sick. But it happened and I've got to live with it."
The Rays scored all of their runs in the fourth on a two-run homer by Evan Longoria and a solo shot by Akinori Iwamura for a 3-1 lead.
"We can't afford to lose games like we lost today," Crawford said. "I just hope we don't do it too many more times, because we're getting close to the line where we're going to be eliminated officially. We just want to stay in it as long as we can."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.