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Clearing air then cleaning clocks


Clearing air then cleaning clocks
BY MARC TOPKIN

Times Staff Writer

SEATTLE - First the Rays spent a few minutes Wednesday afternoon talking amongst themselves in a pregame players-only meeting. Then they spent three-plus hours on a cold night showing they know what they're talking about.

They insisted their offense would be productive and, for the first time in more than a week, it was, scoring in the first six innings on the way to a 9-3 win over the Mariners to improve to 6-9.

They were confident No. 5 starter Jeff Niemann could pitch well and he did, starting with four perfect innings while working into the sixth for his first win of the season, and third of his career.

And they said they'd be fine once they relaxed and played their game, and they were, a stark contrast to how they looked in losing three straight, six of seven and nine of their first 14, the product of ineffective hitting and inconsistent pitching.

The offense came from throughout the lineup, with seven players, including recovered B.J. Upton, scoring runs and six knocking them in. Carl Crawford had four hits and three runs, and Evan Longoria had three hits and knocked in three.

First baseman Carlos Pe?a got them untracked with a two-run double in the first, which was appropriate because he was the one who got them on track by calling the pregame meeting.

"We just wanted to get together and basically reassess and remind ourselves that we just want to stay on our path," Pe?a said, "and that's it."

Manager Joe Maddon had gone around to each player during batting practice Tuesday, telling them, "Let's just play. Just relax when you're coming off a 'dig-me' week. Let's just get back to playing our game."

Wednesday's session seemed to be a natural extension, and Pe?a wasn't the only one who spoke. "We go around the room," Pe?a said. "And it's short; four minutes, three minutes. We're just looking at our mission statement."

Niemann, the 26-year-old right-hander who won the fifth starter's job at the end of spring training, was impressive in his fifth major-league start.

Pitching with a three-run lead, he retired the first 12 Mariners, with only three balls hit out of the infield. He lost the perfect game and the no-hitter rather quickly fifth but didn't lose his composure .

The inning started with a throwing error by shortstop Jason Bartlett, allowing Adrian Beltre to become the first Mariner to reach base. Niemann walked the next batter, Ronny Cedeno, on four pitches. And then he gave up a loud and long home run to Jose Lopez, which sliced the Rays' lead to 7-3.

Niemann fell behind Rob Johnson 2-and-0, watched as catcher Dioner Navarro and Pe?a managed to muff an easy out by colliding under a popup and gave up a single to Johnson.

But Niemann remained focused, in command and in the game. He got Franklin Gutierrez to fly out then got out of the inning when Yuniesky Betancourt grounded into a double play.

While Niemann courted perfection, the Rays flirted with history into the seventh as no AL team, according to Baseball-almanac.com, has scored in all nine innings of a game.

Still, the offensive outburst - off starter Chris Jakubauskas, who looked more like the journeyman who was pitching in the independent leagues and selling women's shoes at Nordstrom - was welcome after they'd scored three or fewer runs in six of their past seven games.

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com


Author:Fox Sports
Author's Website:http://www.foxsports.com
Added: April 23, 2009

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