Jeff Niemann's best pitch travels about 59 feet on a slightly circuitous route and gets to the catcher on a bounce.

Tampa Bay's 6-foot-9 right-hander is aiming for the inside or outside edge of the plate, depending on who's batting.

"Yep, you just look at the bucket and throw it in there," Niemann said.

It is his curveball, and it is brutal. Batters don't always swing at the ball as much as they flail at it. His strikeout-to-walk ratio of 4.31 would rank in the top 10 among Major League pitchers if he had more innings under his belt.

"It's like a high fastball that's never a strike, that's thrown by design," Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey said. "I won't say it's never a strike. It appears to be a strike and then it ends up short.

"With a guy like Jeff, though, with that very, very tall frame and that high delivery, that downward plane and that downward action, it becomes very difficult to deal with."

It took Niemann awhile to develop it. "Started in college," said the Rays' first-round pick (No. 4 overall) out of Rice in 2004. "Took a few years for it to come around. You keep doing it, keep doing it, and you start to learn how to tinker with it to do certain things.

"There's one you throw for a strike, one that comes in a little bit lower and harder and, hopefully, it's a swing-and-miss pitch. You don't want to leave it up, for sure, so you throw it down there and, worst-case scenario, it's a ball. Best case, they swing and miss."

He'll throw it even if there's a runner on third without worrying about a wild pitch or passed ball. "Our catchers [primarily Kelly Shoppach and John Jaso] are good enough that I have the confidence to go out there and throw it whenever we want."

A lower back strain landed Niemann on the disabled list on May 6, two days after leaving four innings (three runs on six hits) into a loss to Toronto.

"One pitch and it happened," he said. "I tried to stay in there, but it was one of those deals where it was really affecting me. It was pretty obvious, not one of those things you can really hide.

"It was tough to not go out there and do what you're supposed to do. When the team's playing better, everyone's trying to have fun and it's like, 'Time to go,' and I'm just sitting there unable to do so."

Niemann returned with a vengeance in 45 days later. In his past three starts he has allowed one run in six innings against the Cardinals, one run in 7 1/3 innings at Yankee Stadium, and two hits in eight scoreless innings against Boston in his first start after the All-Star break.

Even in Niemann's one poor start since coming off the DL -- five runs in three innings at Houston -- the Rays prevailed, 14-10. "So, even if I have a bad one, but we win, I'll take it," he said.

After a 13-6 record in 2009, Niemann was cruising at 10-3 last season before going on the DL in August with a shoulder strain. He finished 12-8.

"Prior to getting injured last year he was arguably our best pitcher for a year or a year and a half," Hickey said. "I think he's probably back to that point right now."

Bruce Lowitt is a freelance writer based in Tampa, Fla.