Game 6 Preview: Rays at Tigers

ST. PETERSBURG, FL - SEPTEMBER 24: Jeff Niemann #34 of the Tampa Bay Rays throws a pitch against the Toronto Blue Jays during the game on September 24, 2011 at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Charles Sonnenblick/Getty Images)

Tampa Bay Rays (4-1) at Detroit Tigers (4-1)

Time/Place: 1 p.m., Comerica Park

SB Nation Blog: DRaysBay

Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network

Pitching matchup: Jeff Niemann (11-7, 4.06 ERA in 2011) vs. Drew Smyly (first Major League start)

At 6'9" and 285 lbs., Niemann is a big dude. He has quietly been a solid piece in the Rays' rotation for the past three years, posting a collective 36-21 record with an ERA just over 4.00. He relies largely on a fastball in the low 90s and a big curveball hovering around 80 mph, throwing those two pitches about 85% of the time. As you might imagine with that type of velocity (or lack thereof), his K-rate isn't especially high. He does a decent job of limiting walks (2.46 per 9 innings last season), and will need to do so today to keep extra runners off the basepaths when the Tigers' heavy hitters come to the plate. In his lone start against the Tigers last season, Niemann gave up 4 runs in 7 1/3 innings and the Tigers won 5-2.

If you have read BYB at all in the past few months, you know about Drew Smyly. The Tigers' minor league pitcher of the year in 2011, Smyly beat out a host of lefthanders and a hobbled Jacob Turner for the 5th starter job in Spring Training. He got beat up in his AAA tune-up start last week -- his first career start at that level, for what it's worth -- giving up 3 runs in less than 2 innings. To be honest, I still have never seen Smyly pitch, so I can't accurately comment on his repertoire. Thankfully, Tigerdog had my back when he profiled Smyly earlier this spring.

A successful homestand?

If you had polled BYB before the season, odds are that most of us would have been happy with a 4-2 record after the first six games of the season. With five of those six games in the rearview mirror, 4-2 is the worst case scenario (other than the unspeakable, of course). I'd liken today's game to playing with "house money" in your preferred gambling establishment. If the Tigers win with a rookie on the mound, fantastic. If they lose, it's not the end of the world. The division will come down to what the Tigers do against other AL Central foes, but getting off to a good start against two of the better teams in the American League is a step in the right direction.

Outlook

Nothing would ease the nerves of a kid making his first big league start more than taking the mound with an early lead. Luckily for Smyly, we have an offense that is more than capable of giving him the baseball equivalent of a stiff drink to calm the nerves with a big first inning. Niemann is the type of solid but unspectacular starter that the Tigers will face all too often this season. Previous Tigers teams have struggled against guys like him for unknown reasons, but I don't see him shutting down this year's lineup. The only curveball I could see occurring is if Jim Leyland throws us one of his "Sunday" lineups in today's getaway game.

Prediction

Smyly, limited by a pitch count, doesn't make it through the 5th inning, and ends up with a no decision.

Gameday Reading:

Are Rays' Shifts Redefining Infield Defense? - Baseball Nation, Rob Neyer
Joe Maddon has been shift-crazy so far this season. While it hasn't really worked yet against the Tigers, is Maddon onto something here?

Rays Get Unlikely 4-2 Victory Over The Tigers - DRaysBay
DRaysBay recap of yesterday's game. Not that you want to re-live it.

Drew Smyly named Tigers' fifth starter, pitching staff apparently set - Bless You Boys, Kurt Mensching
Kurt's original piece when the news broke about Smyly winning the 5th starter job.

2012 Season Preview: Jeff Niemann - DRaysBay
A nice look at how Niemann has evolved throughout his career in a number of ways.

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