Blue Jays-Rays Preview

Whether the Tampa Bay Rays can finally break their deadlock atop
the AL East might depend on how well Jeff Niemann gets past his
miserable return from the disabled list.

The right-hander will try to do just that while helping the Rays
continue their recent home dominance of the Toronto Blue Jays on
Tuesday night.

For the eighth consecutive day, Tampa Bay (81-50) kept pace with
New York in its division thanks to a 6-2 victory in Monday’s opener
of a three-game set. Carlos Pena homered for the second straight
game, drove in four runs and the Rays took advantage of three
errors during their 22nd win in 27 home matchups against Toronto
(68-63).

Tampa Bay, who moved seven games up on a playoff spot, has also
won 12 of 16 overall and 22 of 28 at Tropicana Field.

“Our guys are so good about being ready right now,” manager Joe
Maddon said. “You come into the dugout before the game and you
could feel the intensity of the group. I wasn’t concerned. I really
thought we were ready to play and obviously we were.”

Niemann (10-4, 3.67 ERA) will try to keep his team rolling but
will likely need a better performance than in a 12-3 road loss to
the Angels on Wednesday. After missing three weeks with a strained
pitching shoulder, the right-hander didn’t make it out of the
fourth inning while giving up a career-worst 10 runs, eight hits
and three walks.

“I didn’t do what I wanted to do with the ball, and they hit
everything I left over the plate. The walks didn’t help,” said
Niemann, who had never previously been on the DL. “Now we’ve got to
go back to the drawing board and figure out what’s going on. I’ve
just got to work hard and see what we can do. But I was just really
excited to get back out there.”

While trying to help his team clinch its third straight winning
season, Niemann will try to quickly regain the form he showed in
his only complete game this season, a two-hitter at home against
Toronto on June 8. He’s 1-0 with a 3.27 ERA in three starts this
season versus the Blue Jays and 3-1 with a 4.04 ERA in six career
matchups.

The Rays could give him some help as they’re a major league-best
31-14 against left-handed starters and will face southpaw Ricky
Romero (10-8, 3.54) on Tuesday.

Romero enters this game after giving up six runs – three earned
– and a season high-tying five walks over 5 2-3 innings of
Thursday’s 7-1 loss to Detroit. He was sick with strep throat in
the two days before that outing.

“I don’t want to use the whole I was sick excuse because I felt
great,” Romero said.

Romero is 1-1 with a 2.57 ERA in three career starts against the
Rays but did not get a decision in a 9-3 loss April 24 at Tropicana
Field, allowing two runs over seven innings while pitching opposite
Niemann.

Pena is 1 for 6 with two strikeouts against Romero, while Evan
Longoria, who has 16 RBIs in 16 games, is 3 for 6.

Major league home run leader Jose Bautista is 1 for 11 with four
strikeouts against Niemann.