Tres mas: With 5-3 win over Mariners, Rays' magic number shrinks to 3

[image-1]The Rays rallied for a three-spot in the bottom of the fifth frame, sending all nine men to the plate in the process. Upton led off with a walk and promptly stole second. Bartlett moved him to third with a base hit and JB himself advanced on Crawford’s ground out to first. Aybar then singled, scoring Upton and moving Bartlett to third before Zobrist reached on a bunt single, scoring Bartlett and knocking Vargas from the game. Shoppach reached on an infield single, loading the bases for Carlos Pena. Aybar scored on passed ball by Seattle’s catcher Moore and Pena walked to reload the bases. A strikeout by Sean Rodriguez and a liner to first by Desmond Jennings let that golden opportunity go by.

The Mariners tacked on another in the top of the sixth; Niemann had another 1-2-3 inning in the fifth but yielded a leadoff double to Lopez. Two outs later, Moore singled, scoring Lopez and taking Niemann out of the game after throwing a mere 79 pitches. While the tall righty had thrown a few good innings, I think this was a smart move by Rays manager Joe Maddon. Niemann left with only a single base runner – erased by a fly out induced by reliever Randy Choate – and the Rays ahead with the chance for a win. Niemann’s wheels were clearly coming off and, while I’m sure he would have liked to have finished the frame, better to preserve the lead and let Jeff come off without imploding. Niemann’s line: three runs on seven hits, one walk and four strikeouts. Not a bad night, all things considered.

[image-2]And that would do it on the scoreboard, folks. Grant Balfour and Joaquin Benoit each pitched a scoreless, one-hit inning in relief – the seventh and eighth, respectively - before Rafael “MFIKY” Soriano came on in the ninth inning, looking for his 44th save of the season, the most by a pitcher in Rays history. Michael Saunders struck out, one down. What’s-his-name Tulasosopo reached with a walk. Matt Mangini became out no. 2 on a broken-bat liner to third. Ichiro Suzuki? Ground out to second, third out, game over; untuck the shirt, MFIKY, and go tell Todd Kalas about how you care more about the win than the record.

The Rays’ win gave them an identical record to the New York Yankees, temporarily. At the time of final out, the Boston Red Sox were leading the Bronx Bums 10-7 in the ninth inning. By the time I finished writing, the Yankees came back to score one in the bottom of the inning but ultimately lost 8-10 to Boston. Thus, the magic number is now 3 and the Rays currently enjoy a slim half-game lead in the A.L. East.

I have mixed feelings about seeing the Sawks win over the Yanks. Sure, it’s great to win the division and New York losing certainly helps toward that end for the Rays. But with the Rays offense struggling of late, I’m more interested in securing a playoff spot than shooting for the division. The Yankees losing doesn’t help reduce that magic number any; the Rays shrank it by one Friday night but I’d prefer the Yankees won, bringing it down another notch and keeping the Rays half a game back of the division lead.

[image-3]In unrelated fashion crime news, MLB has released a hat to match the BRayser jackets worn by the team on a trip to the West Coast. I was morbidly excited about the prospect until I saw it (pictured). I’m not a big fan of that style of flat-billed cap. I prefer something with a shallow dome that sits on my gargantuan cranium without too much pressure (yeah, hats give me headaches, shut up). “I’m not kidding, that boy’s head is like Sputnik!”

The Tampa bay Rays headed into Friday night’s game against the Seattle Mariners - the first of an entire series without All-Star 3B Evan Longoria, out with strained quad -  with a magic number of four: a combination of Rays wins or losses by the Boston Red Sox would clinch a spot in American League post-season play. Who to root for as the Red Sox faced the Yankees? More on that later.

Struggling starter Jeff Niemann took the hill for TBay, looking to improve on his 10-7 season. Niemann had a wonderful start to the year but went on the DL and has struggled since his return; headed into Friday night’s game, he was winless in his previous five starts, failing to secure a W since August 3 against the Minnesota Twins.

Tampa Bay scored the first run in the second inning. Ben Zobrist led off with a well-hit double; he crossed the plate easily on a double by Kelly Shoppach. The Rays tacked on another in the bottom half of the next inning, again benefiting from a leadoff double, this one from B.J. Upton. Jason Bartlett got aboard with a walk after an extended at-bat against Seattle starter Jason Vargas; both runners advanced on a hit-and-run play when Carl Crawford grounded out to the second baseman. Willy Aybar brought Upton home with a sacrifice fly out to left field.

Seattle came back to tie the game in the fourth inning. Niemann pitched well until the fourth, allowing two hits in the first and putting up consecutive three-up, three-down innings to follow. Seattle’s Chone Figgins led off the top of the fourth with a base hit and then stole second; he went to third when Jose Lopez grounded out to short. Franklin Gutierrez singled to drive home Figgins; he then stole second when Justin Smoak struck out. Adam Moore’s base hit scored Gutierrez from second, but Niemann closed the frame by striking out Matt “Please don’t make me type this again” Tulasosopo.

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