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Punchless bats

Punchless bats
By Joe Smith

Times Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG - The Rays wanted right-hander Jeff Niemann to keep the ball down - and his nerves low - Thursday night in order to rebound from a rough first outing.

Niemann did just that - and more - showing composure (and quick thinking) in the most controversial moment of a 3-2 loss to the White Sox in front of an announced 13,803 at Tropicana Field.

But it was the Rays offense that again fizzled, going 0-for-11 with runners in scoring position, striking out 10 times and stranding the tying run at third and winning run at second in the ninth inning.

Niemann, 26, who was admittedly too "amped up" Saturday against the Orioles - allowing the first six batters to reach and giving up a grand slam in a five-run burst - tamed the slugging White Sox, allowing two runs in six innings.

But Niemann saved his best for a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the sixth sparked by a second chance for Jermaine Dye and fueled by Rays manager Joe Maddon's ejection.

Dye had apparently grounded out to third for the second out but barely left the batters box. He argued he fouled the ball off his left foot, pointing vigorously to it and joining manager Ozzie Guillen in an argument with the umpires.

The umpires asked for the ball - which had been tossed into the Rays dugout - to be returned. And after examination, they ruled it a foul ball.

Maddon vigorously objected in a heated argument, pointing repeatedly toward Dye and his shoe.

Maddon was ejected (his 10th as Rays manager, passing former manager Lou Piniella for second in club history), and Dye turned his reprieve into the first of three straight White Sox singles to load the bases.

But Niemann stayed calm and made a strong defensive play on a slow roller by Alexei Ramirez, barehanding it and throwing out Dye at home with an underhand scoop.

The rookie then got Brian Anderson to ground out to end the threat and keep the controversy from brewing further.

The Rays (4-6) got encouraging work from their bullpen (one run in three innings), including a strong outing from recently struggling Grant Balfour, who struck out Jim Thome and Dye with the bases loaded in the ninth after inheriting a two-on, one-out situation.

But the Rays offense was once again held in check.

They squandered runners on second and third with one out in the fourth and a runner on second with one out in the seventh. In the eighth, a Pat Burrell single and Carlos Pe?a walk gave the Rays a two-on, one-out situation. But Willy Aybar struck out and Dioner Navarro's broken-bat grounder turned into an inning-ending fielder's choice.

They had the tying run at third and winning run at second in the ninth, but Gabe Gross ended the game by grounding out to first.

"We just didn't get the big hit," said rightfielder Gabe Kapler, who fouled out to first with Jason Bartlett on second and one out in the seventh inning.

"You don't capitalize, you lose games, especially against good pitching."

The Rays , who have lost three straight, got a solo homer by Pe?a in the sixth (his fifth on the season and fourth in five games).

But of more concern is the Rays continuing to struggle to manufacture runs. Entering Thursday, 25 of their 51 runs had come on home runs, the highest percentage in the majors.

Joe Smith can be reached at Joe

Author:Fox Sports
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Added: April 17, 2009

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