DURHAM, N.C. -- This is what Tampa Bay had in mind when it selected Jeff Niemann with their top pick in the 2004 draft. The Durham Bulls right-hander has certainly shown flashes of what he's capable of accomplishing in the three years since the Devil Rays made him the fourth overall selection.
But on Wednesday night, when the Bulls needed a big performance against Richmond, a gutty performance, the kind that is expected of a first-round selection, Niemann delivered. He pitched a career-high eight innings to shut down the Braves and lead Durham to a 5-1 victory before 4,065 fans in the final game of the season at Durham Bulls Athletic Park.
The Governors' Cup Finals shift to The Diamond in Richmond for Thursday's Game 3 with the series tied at a game apiece. And while the Bulls can point to offensive stars Evan Longoria and Michel Hernandez -- they each had two RBIs -- as keys Wednesday night, without Niemann's efficient and dominating effort, Durham would have been heading up I-95 in a two-game hole.
Niemann has struggled at times to locate his fastball this season, leading to high pitch counts and early exits. But he had no such problems against Richmond, striking out a season-high nine [one shy of a career high] without walking a batter. He left after throwing 99 pitches, turning it over to closer Shawn Camp, who tossed a scoreless ninth.
"I was aware going into the eighth inning that it was new territory," said Niemann, who had gone seven inning four times previously, including once this year, in his professional career. "I had command of my fastball tonight and I was able to move the ball in and out. I kept the ball down, and that was a key.
"I was feeling good tonight. I lobbied to stay in there for the ninth, but I learned a long time ago that you're not going to get very far [arguing] with the people around here. It [this game] comes at a good time, though. It's a culmination of what I've been working on all season. Tonight it all came together. We needed it as a team, but I needed it for myself because I didn't go past seven all year."
What made Niemann's effort even more special was that he did it in front of the Tampa Bay brass. Devil Rays executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman was in attendance as was director of Minor League operations Mitch Lukevics.
"He pitched a phenomenal game," Friedman said. "He really put his teammates on his back. It was his most impressive effort and he saved the bullpen, too."
Niemann also showed some moxie in the seventh during a confrontation with Richmond right fielder Doug Clark, who took exception to a fastball that sailed over his head. Clark, who jawed with the Durham bench following the brushback, followed the close pitch by singling through the hole between first and second. Niemann ran to first as if he were covering the base and proceeded to exchange words with Clark.
Bulls first baseman Wes Bankston quickly stepped in and both benches emptied. There was the requisite amount of posturing and yelling, but no punches were thrown and order was quickly restored. Niemann then struck out Carlos Mendez and induced an inning-ending popup from Wes Timmons.
"That [re-establishing himself] was key," said Niemann, who scattered six hits. "We had a few minutes there where we had to straighten everything out. After that, I was able to go back and start attacking guys and give our offense a chance to get back in the dugout and go back to work."
The offense, however, had inflicted all the damage it needed to inflict an inning earlier. The Bulls broke the game open in the sixth, chasing Richmond starter Blaine Boyer and reliever Phil Stockman. Longoria had an RBI double to snap a 1-1 tie and Hernandez added a two-run single.
The Bulls took a 1-0 lead in the first on Longoria's two-out RBI single. The Braves tied it in the third when Gregor Blanco smacked a one-out homer into the right-field bleachers. Richmond has two homers in the Finals after not hitting any in four games during its semifinal against Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
Niemann, however, remained unaffected by the homer and allowed only two more hits over his final 5 2/3 innings.
"He was lights-out. He had it all working," Longoria said. "With his aggression and the way he works on the mound, if he has any stuff, he's real tough to hit."
THE BRAWL THAT WASN'T: The seventh-inning get-together seemed odd in that Niemann hadn't come close to dusting anyone the entire game. Yet Clark took exception and voiced his complaints to Niemann and the Durham bench, and that seemed to fuel the argument more than anything else. Afterwards, Clark didn't have much to say.
"Obviously, that ball speaks for itself," he said. "I don't think anything else really needs to be said."
Niemann said the pitch got away from him, while Durham manager Charlie Montoyo also insisted the pitch wasn't intentional.
"We don't want to hit anyone in a close game," said Montoyo, adding that he expected fines to be handed down from the league office as a result of the incident. League president Randy Mobley was in attendance.
NOTES: Durham won the International League's South Division, yet Richmond, the Wild Card winner, has home-field advantage in the Finals. Montoyo said he wouldn't use that as an excuse if his team ends up losing the series but wondered why the team that finished first wouldn't have the advantage. "As the team with the home-field advantage, we would have liked to have had the chance to win a game in the road park and the, come home and see what we can do at home," he said. "I'm sure there's a reason behind it, why they do it that way. It could have been us, though. We could have easily been the Wild Card." The IL playoff structure is determined before the postseason. ... Montoyo, who won the Southern League title last year while managing in Montgomery, hasn't heard where he'll be next year, but he's under contract with Tampa Bay through Oct. 31. He said if he had to return to the Minor Leagues next year, he'd like to be in Durham. "This is a great place to manage," he said. "There's a lot of tradition here. If you're going to be in the Minor Leagues, this is the place to be. Last year in Montgomery, it was the same way." Lukevics said no personnel decisions have been made regarding 2008. ... Mobley said that as of Wednesday afternoon, there were close to 10,000 tickets sold for next Tuesday's Bricktown Showdown in Oklahoma City. Last year's game drew 12,572 fans. With a week to go, there's a strong chance that this year's game will surpass that figure. ... Mobley also said that construction of the new ballpark in Allentown, Pa., which will be home to the IronPigs next season, is on schedule and should be completed in time for Opening Day. ... The Bulls announced that RHP Jae Kuk Ryu [5-4, 4.04] will start Game 4 and RHP Mitch Talbot [13-9, 4.53] will go in Game 5, if necessary. The Braves have not announced their starters.