Take away the five runs he gave up in the first inning of his season debut, and Jeff Niemann has been about as good as the Rays could have hoped a fifth starter would be.
The 6-foot-9 righty turned in a third consecutive strong outing, and the Rays' offense more than doubled the run production of the two previous games combined in a 7-1 victory against the Twins on Monday night.
The victory stopped a two-game losing streak and gave the defending American League champions (8-12) a chance to win a series - something they haven't done since their opening trip to Boston - and bring some momentum back for a home stand against the Red Sox and Orioles.
"That's exactly what we're looking for to get things going our way," said first baseman Carlos Pena, who hit his ninth home run and had a triple and three RBIs to tie a club record for most RBIs through April with 24. "Momentum is important. When you have a good positive energy and you can roll with it, it can do wonders for you."
Niemann (2-2) pitched 5 2/3 innings in his sixth major-league start and allowed one run on three hits. Joe Crede's two-out solo home run in the sixth accounted for the only damage, although Niemann did tie a career record with four walk and hit a batter. Since an opening loss at Baltimore on April 11 in which he pitched well after the first inning, Niemann has gone 2-1 with a 2.53 ERA.
"What he's learning to do is stay out of the big inning by being able to gather himself," manager Joe Maddon said. "Pitchers, a lot of times, their bane is the big inning. You have to be able to work through that. It's all about controlling your emotions, controlling your thoughts."
Niemann three times faced situations with two on and one out an escaped unscathed each time. He coaxed fly outs from Jason Kubel and Crede in the first, struck out Justin Morneau and Kubel in the third and got a line-drive double play from Jose Morales in the fourth.
"When things get heated out there, just being able to make a pitch or two [for outs] can really change the game," Niemann said. "I was able to do that today."
Grant Balfour, Joe Nelson, Dan Wheeler and J.P. Howell combined to hold the Twins scoreless over the final 3 1/3 innings. Nelson was particularly sharp, coming on with two on and none out in the seventh and retiring the Twins' first three batters - Tampa Catholic product Denard Span, Alexi Casilla and dangerous Morneau -- in order.
"I like coming in in spots where you pick up one of your relievers," Nelson said. "Grant had a couple of guys on, and he's done it for me a couple of times, so paying him back is good."
The Rays gave Niemann some breathing room in the first when Pena tripled after a disputed double by Evan Longoria down the left-field line, and Pat Burrell followed with an RBI single for a 2-0 lead.
RBI singles by Jason Bartlett and Longoria in the fifth made it 4-0. Pena hit his major-league-leading ninth homer, a 402-foot shot, in the eighth with one on off R.A. Dickey, and red-hot Bartlett smacked a solo homer in the ninth off Juan Morillo to account for the other runs.
Longoria hit safety for the 15th time in 18 games, going 2-for-3 to raise his average to .371. He had his eighth multi-hit game of the year. Bartlett also is hitting .371, best among major league shortstops.
B.J. Upton ended an 0-for-19 slump in the seventh inning with a single but got picked off at first base by Dickey.