Niemann, Zobrist lead Rays to DH sweep of Twins
MINNEAPOLIS – Ben Zobrist had a good week all in one day for the Tampa Bay Rays.
Zobrist hit a two-run homer to give him 10 RBIs on Thursday and Jeff Niemann carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning as Tampa Bay swept a day-night doubleheader with a 6-1 victory over the Minnesota Twins.
Zobrist went 7 for 10 with two homers and three doubles in the doubleheader. He set a club record with eight RBIs in the opener, hitting a home run and two doubles.
"I really had no idea what was happening," Zobrist said. "I just was kind of in the zone. Just trying not to think about it too much. I just felt real comfortable, obviously, in the box."
Niemann (1-3) gave up one run and two hits in seven innings and John Jaso also went deep for the Rays, who routed the Twins 15-3 in the first game.
The Rays swept the rain-delayed three-game series, outscoring Minnesota 29-6. They have won five straight and 12 of 15 after a 1-8 start.
Denard Span led off the seventh inning with a soft single to break up Niemann's no-hit bid and Justin Morneau added an RBI single for the slumping Twins.
Anthony Swarzak (0-1), recalled from Triple-A Rochester for an emergency start, gave up five runs and eight hits in 5 1-3 innings.
Niemann was incredibly efficient, needing just 64 pitches to get through the first six innings as he let an injury-riddled lineup get itself out over and over again.
With Joe Mauer, Delmon Young and Tsuyoshi Nishioka on the disabled list and Jim Thome (oblique) unavailable, the Twins trotted out a lineup that included Matt Tolbert (.189), Drew Butera (.135) and Rene Tosoni, who was playing in his second big league game.
Niemann walked Morneau to start the second inning. But he got Michael Cuddyer to ground into a double play and Tosoni to pop out to left field for the unconventional 1-2-3 inning.
The big right-hander entered 0-3 with a 7.08 ERA, but finally started pulling his weight in Tampa Bay's impressive rotation to pick up his first win since Sept. 24.
"It was a huge confidence boost," Niemann said. "It was something that I needed. The team's been playing so well. I feel like I was that guy that was stopping the momentum the whole time. It was great to keep that momentum going."
Zobrist, who had three hits in the night game, staked Niemann to an early lead with a two-run homer in the second inning, giving him an incredible 10 RBIs for the day, the most since Cincinnati's Mark Whiten had 13 in a doubleheader in 1993. To put that in perspective, Danny Valencia leads the Twins with 11 this season.
"The ball was big," Zobrist said. "I saw the ball big today and put good swings on it. I felt like when I swung the bat, good things were going to happen every time."
Jaso hit a solo homer in the fourth and Sean Rodriguez also had two hits and two RBIs for the Rays, who have scored 37 runs in the last five games to break out of a season-long offensive funk.
In the early game, Zobrist broke the team record of seven RBIs set by Carlos Pena in 2007. He became the first player to drive in at least eight runs in a game since Toronto's Adam Lind on Aug. 31, 2009.
Zobrist hit .297 with 27 home runs and 91 RBIs in 2009, then signed a four-year, $18 million contract. He played through a sore neck last year and his numbers dropped across the board, down to .238 with 10 homers and 75 RBIs.
But he's been healthy this spring and it shows. He's driven in 18 runs over his last five games to take over the AL lead in RBIs with 25.
"That's hot," Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said. "Ben's just not missing. He's getting his opportunities and the at-bats have been working and he's done a great job with it."
Jeremy Hellickson (2-2) gave up three runs and seven hits in 6 1-3 innings for the victory in the day game.
Twins starter Nick Blackburn (1-4) allowed seven runs — five earned — and eight hits in 3 1-3 innings. He walked four.
Cuddyer challenged the listless Twins after the first game, saying the team needed to play with more fire and emotion.
"When it's 15-3 it's hard to have a lot of fire in the dugout," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "There's not going to be many pompoms when you're getting your (rear end) kicked."
NOTES: Beginning with the first game Thursday, the Rays will play four games in a 51-hour span. Friday's starter, David Price, was sent back to Florida ahead of the team to prepare for his start. ... Tosoni had two hits in his major league debut in the afternoon, but also committed an error in LF that led to a run. ... After the second game, the Twins optioned Swarzak back to Triple-A Rochester and recalled RHP Alex Burnett.