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 MLBPLAYERS.com:

MLBPLAYERS.com: 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.

MLBPLAYERS.com: 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.

MLBPLAYERS.com: 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

MLBPLAYERS.com: 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.

MLBPLAYERS.com: 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.

MLBPLAYERS.com: 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.

MLBPLAYERS.com: 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.

MLBPLAYERS.com: As you have progressed, what are some of the little things you have learned?

Niemann: I would say, try and not waste many pitches.

MLBPLAYERS.com: 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.

MLBPLAYERS.com: 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.