MINNEAPOLIS -- Rays manager Joe Maddon twice defied convention and sent pitching coach Jim Hickey to talk to starter Jeff Niemann during an at-bat.
The unusual mound visits couldn't have worked out any better.
Niemann got out of both jams Monday night and kept the Minnesota Twins guessing into the sixth inning, and Carlos Pena hit his majors-leading ninth home run to lift Tampa Bay to a 7-1 victory.
"Both times I said, 'Jimmy, go talk to him,"' said Maddon of the rare mid-at-bat trip to the rubber. "You could see he was just on the verge of keeping it together or not. Big moments in the game, so I just thought it was the right time to go out there."
Niemann (2-2) gave up just three hits and one run in 5 2/3 innings and the bullpen didn't allow a run the rest of the way for the defending AL champions, who are off to an identically slow start as last season (8-12) before they went on a stunning run to the World Series.
He walked four but only ran into trouble twice, and Hickey must have said just the right things to settle him down. In the first inning, he walked Alexi Casilla and hit Justin Morneau and fell behind Jason Kubel 2-0. Hickey visited the mound, and Niemann got Kubel to fly out to center on the next pitch and Crede to pop out to right to end the inning.
In the fourth, Niemann walked Michael Cuddyer, gave up a single to Delmon Young and then fell behind 2-0 to Jose Morales. Again, Hickey came to the mound for the unconventional mid-at bat visit.
And again, on the very next pitch, Niemann got Morales to line into a double play to escape unscathed.
Hickey said he just reminded Niemann to stay true to his mechanics and trust his pitches.
"It's not unusual, really, to do that," Hickey said. "You try to kind of stay away from it, but both were at the prompting of Joe, although I was on the top step both times. Just a little bit of a reminder."
The words clearly resonated.
"When things get heated out there, just to be able to make a pitch or two can really change the game," Niemann said. "I was able to do that today and it was good."
Pena also had a triple and three RBIs. Former Twin Jason Bartlett added two hits and a homer.
Joe Crede hit a solo home run in the sixth for the Twins, but that was all they could muster in their first look at the 6-foot-9 righty.
"He has a little funk to him, a little hitch in his giddy-up," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "The ball comes out of his hand pretty good."
The Twins went 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position after leading the majors in that category a year ago.
Scott Baker (0-3) gave up four runs and six hits with seven strikeouts in six innings of his third straight mediocre start, but Gardenhire said it "was a step in the right direction."
It's been a struggle for Baker all season. He missed his first start of the season with a sore shoulder and hasn't been able to find the form that prompted the Twins to sign him to a four-year, $15.25 million contract in March.
"For the most part, it was right where I needed to be," Baker said. "They were able to string a few hits together and score a couple runs in a couple different innings."
Rays CF B.J. Upton snapped an 0-for-19 skid with a single in the seventh, then got picked off first base by R.A. Dickey. ... It's been a struggle for the catcher Morales defensively all season. He dropped a pitchout in the two-run fifth inning, one of two passed balls on the night. ... Gardenhire said OF Carlos Gomez will leave the team on Tuesday to fly to Florida where his wife will give birth to the couple's first child. He will rejoin the team on Friday. ... Rays RHP Jason Isringhausen made another rehab start on Monday. He gave up one run on two hits and threw 29 pitches in one inning for Double-A Montgomery.