MILWAUKEE -- Two hours before the start of Monday night's Rays-Brewers contest at Miller Park, Joe Maddon was asked what he thought it would take for the Rays to make a move in the American League East.
The Rays' manager considered the question for a moment then noted if everything else remained status quo, his team needed to improve on offense and needed to get starters Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis to start "pitching like they can."
Well, two out of three wasn't bad for the Rays, who scored eight runs and got a quality pitching performance from Niemann in an 8-4 win over the Brewers at Miller Park with 35,495 watching.
By beginning their six-game Interleague road trip with a win, the Rays moved to 40-33 on the season, extending their winning streak to four games in the process. Tampa Bay is now 22-15 on the road this season and 5-2 in Interleague Play. The Rays also remained in third place in the American League East, 4 1/2 games behind the Red Sox.
Clearly Niemann's work meant the most to the Rays on Monday night. Not because of the fact he allowed no runs and just four hits in six innings to earn his second win of the season, but rather it was the manner in which he did it.
The 6-foot-9 right-hander made his first appearance since going on the disabled list with a lower back strain, which caused him to miss 42 games. Niemann hardly looked rusty.
"He was outstanding, he was really good," Maddon said. "Fastball up a little bit ... but really good curveball. A couple of good splits mixed in, but primarily a good fastball-curveball tonight."
In addition to pitching well, Niemann made a nifty play in the field for the first out in the fourth when he pounced on a swinging bunt by Casey McGehee in time to throw him out at first.
Niemann hit Nyjer Morgan leading off the sixth, but home-plate umpire Bob Davidson ruled that Morgan had leaned over to take the pitch off his shoulder and didn't award him first base. Morgan then struck out, prompting dialogue from Milwaukee's bench and leading to the ejections of Brewers hitting coach Dale Sveum and manager Ron Roenicke.
After the ejections, the Brewers mounted their first real threat against Niemann when they loaded the bases. But Niemann froze Mark Kotsay with a curveball for strike three and then retired Yuniesky Betancourt on a fly ball to right on a 3-1 pitch.
"That was the game right there," Niemann said. "It was 1-0, and very easily things could have unraveled right there, but the defense played great behind me and we were able to make some pitches when we needed to.
"[The sixth was] huge. You're going to have some tense moments out there, and to be able to come away and get out of that without any runs, it was huge and a great start to build on."
Roenicke complimented Niemann.
"He's always been a tough pitcher," Roenicke said. "I think he changes speeds well. I think his height is a big advantage, because the ball is coming in on a nice, down plane. And it's unusual for hitters to see that steep of an angle from a pitcher, so if he's keeping the ball down -- he threw some nice changeups, he's got a real nice breaking ball.
"The breaking ball that he struck out Kotsay on on 3-2 was nasty. It's almost impossible to hit that pitch. So you got that guy at a down angle, and now you're throwing a breaking ball that's starting at that same place and going down, and it really makes it tough."
Despite entering the game on a three-game win streak, Tampa Bay had been struggling offensively. But the Rays managed to manufacture a run in the first inning when Johnny Damon drew a leadoff walk from Chris Narveson and went to second on Ben Zobrist's bunt single. Evan Longoria's flyout to right moved Damon to third, and he scored when B.J. Upton hit into a fielder's choice.
Justin Ruggiano pinch-hit for Niemann in the top of the seventh and came through with an RBI double. Zobrist added an RBI double and Longoria and Upton RBI singles to push Tampa Bay's lead to 5-0.
Jonathan Lucroy homered off J.P. Howell in the seventh to get Milwaukee on the scoreboard. But Longoria answered with a three-run homer in the eighth to push the lead to 8-1.
"[The ball] flies pretty good [in Miller Park]," Longoria said. "When I got back into the dugout after that home run, I was just saying that ball is definitely caught at [Tropicana Field]. But you've got to know the elements, I guess."
In addition to winning their fourth consecutive game, the Rays have now won 10 of their last 14, and they are beginning to feel the momentum shifting their way.
"Oh yeah, when you come to the ballpark and you expect to win every day, that's a good feeling," Longoria said. "I think everybody, when you look around, you can feel that guys have the feeling that we're going to win, that look in their eye, that look of desire to go out there and get it done."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.