6-3 recap before Royals finale

ST. PETERSBURG — Got some time to kill here before players have to report for their 4:08 p.m. ET game against the Royals on Thursday (is it just me, or is that a really odd time for a weekday game?).

Anyway, bunch of stuff from last night — which ended with the Rays beating Kansas City, 9-0, to improve to 27-28 and move to five back of the Red Sox and Yankees in the American League East.
* Evan Longoria’s sore left hamstring is fine. He’s likely to start at third base once Tampa Bay starts its four-game road series against the Yankees on Friday. I haven’t seen the lineup yet, but I can’t imagine he’d be on it Thursday.
UPDATE: Longoria just finished running around the infield and playing catch along the right-field line.
* Pat Burrell (stiff neck) was in here early getting treatment. He hit off the tee on Wednesday and is scheduled to do so again. The 32-year-old will stay back while his team is in New York this weekend and take live batting practice. If all goes well, the Rays will map out a schedule for him to take part in some rehab games.
* Jason Bartlett (left ankle sprain) and Scott Kazmir (mechanics issues and a right quad strain) are progressing, but still no timetable. Kazmir threw a bullpen session on Wednesday and will continue to do so — with a couple of off-days in between — for about a week. Then, perhaps, get in some rehab games (though that’s still unknown). It’s going to be interesting to see how the Rays handle Bartlett in the next six days. He’s eligible to come off his DL stint on Wednesday, but not much is known as to whether or not he’ll be ready.
* In case you haven’t heard, Jeff Niemann was really good on Wednesday night. In fact, better than he’s ever been since being the Rays’ fourth overall pick in the 2004 First-Year Player Draft. The 26-year-old rookie — who’s had a rough start to his career ever since that Draft day — now sports a 2.03 ERA in his last five starts and is beginning to look like the 6-foot-9, hard-throwing, downhill stud Tampa Bay expected.
* More Niemann: With his complete-game, two-hitter on Wednesday (though the second-to-last out could’ve been ruled an error by Joe Dillon at third base) he became the eighth player in Rays history to throw a complete game shutout with two or fewer hits and the third Tampa Bay rookie. It was also the first complete game or shutout by a Rays pitcher since Matt Garza on Aug. 15, 2008, against the Rangers (afterward, Garza made sure he gave his teammate props by decking him in the face with a shaving-cream pie).
After Wednesday’s game, Maddon beamed about Niemann’s newfound confidence lately, and he feels it can continue to improve after his latest outing:
“When you can get a young pitcher to throw a complete game, often times it really does boost their confidence even more,” Maddon said. “To be able to be out there in the ninth inning standing and have command of the game does a lot for your confidence. … He’s starting to get it. He’s still a young man, there’s still a long ways to go, but I’ve seen a steady improvement in him over the last couple of months.”
With Scott Kazmir on the shelf, if Niemann — who many saw as the biggest question mark in the rotation going into the season — can continue to show he was worth an early pick in the Draft, the already dangerous Rays rotation could be flat-out deadly.
* Another below-the-radar guy who keeps producing is Ben Zobrist. More on his franchise-record fourth career grand slam on Wednesday will be on the site later, but here are some interesting numbers about Zobrist’s recent production, courtesy of the Rays’ PR staff.
- He’s started 11 straight games and reached base in 40 of his last 77 plate appearances (22-for-58, 16 walks, five home runs, 19 RBIs and seven doubles).
- Is currently tied for his career-high with a nine-game hitting streak that has him batting .387 (12-for-31) with nine walks in that span.
- He’s raised his team-best slugging percentage to .659, which would’ve been second in the AL — trailing Red Sox first baseman Kevin Youkilis’ .664 — but Zobrist is 14 plate appearances shy of qualifying.
- Has 22 home runs in 331 at-bats since the beginning of 2008 — an average of 15.05 at-bats per home run.
Yes, eight guys — including four starters — are currently on the shelf for the Rays. But at least some of those who fans perhaps didn’t expect much from at the beginning of the year are keeping them afloat.
– Alden Gonzalez

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