Jeff Niemann has been one of the pleasant surprises this season for the defending American League Champions. When the year began, the 6-foot-9, 260-pound right-hander wasn't a lock to make the club's roster, and now he's the Rays' leader in wins (12) -- including two shutouts -- while posting a 3.87 ERA. Niemann, who was the fourth overall Draft pick coming out of Rice in 2004, but whose ascent to the Majors was delayed by injury, recently answered a few questions from What can you say about your strong second-half showing?

Niemann: It's been fun to get on a roll and to keep it going. It's important that, when the games are close, you keep them close for the sake of your team. When you pitch a particularly good game like you have on a number of occasions this season, are you anxious to get back out there?

Niemann: You do want to get back out there and repeat what was successful. The key is to throw strikes and to prepare yourself for your next start. Realizing that this is still your rookie season, is it important to not get too complacent?

Niemann: I think I'll always have the mindset of trying to earn a spot on the team, of trying to earn a spot in the rotation. There's so much more to learn. It's about grinding it out and getting better as the season goes along Last year, you pitched in five games here for a team that later advanced to the World Series. Do you think you could have contributed in the playoffs if given the opportunity?

Niemann: I think anybody in that opportunity, anybody who was with that team for any amount of time, would have relished that chance. This season, you've pitched late into games, and you have had some games in which you have only lasted a few innings. Can you learn from those types of games as well?

Niemann: You can really learn a lot from any given appearance, but you can certainly learn from those bad starts. As you lead this team in wins, what goes through your mind when you hear or read about any Rookie of the Year Award talk?

Niemann: It's nice to hear that and an honor to hear that, but there's a lot of baseball left in the season, and the focus is on my next start. I just want to continue to get better as we are in a race for a playoff spot. You are a rookie at age 26. What held you back?

Niemann: I think a lot of it had to do with an injury. I underwent surgery in the offseason following the 2005 season. It also takes you some time to adjust as you climb the ladder. This is just how I've progressed. As you have progressed, what are some of the little things you have learned?

Niemann: I would say, try and not waste many pitches. At 6-foot-9, what is the key for maintaining your mechanics.

Niemann: The key is to stay in synch. You want to have a smooth delivery on the whole and stay on top of the ball. During your time in the minors prior to this season, you watched some guys pass you along the way. How did you stay focused?

Niemann: I think a lot of had to do with trying to keep a positive attitude. Nothing good comes with having a bad attitude.

Jeff Moeller is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.