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Jason Bartlett, Jeff Niemann help Tampa Bay Rays get back to .500 with rout

ST. PETERSBURG — The five RBIs were a career high. The three hits raised his average to .384, second best in the American League. But the play in the Rays' 13-4 Monday stroll past the A's that best typified Jason Bartlett's heads-up play, vision and overall value came in the middle of a messy first inning.

The Rays were already up 4-1, with Willy Aybar on third and Bartlett on second, when A's starter Sean Gallagher's pitch caromed off catcher Kurt Suzuki's left shoulder and bounced toward the visitors' dugout.

As Aybar trotted home, Bartlett quickly read the play — "I saw it and something flashed in my head," he said — rounded third in full stride and raced across the plate right behind Aybar for an extra run.

"I know he played really well last year," manager Joe Maddon said, "but at no point did I see him play this well. I'm talking complete game."

Overall, the Rays are on a pretty good run. Monday's win was their season-high fourth straight and got them back to the .500 mark, at 20-20, for the first time since they were 4-4 five weeks ago. A season-low crowd of 11,420 cheered them.

"We just wanted to get back to this point, and we're going to try to jump and move this thing further along, which we're going to have to do," Maddon said. "I liked the enthusiasm in spite of not a big crowd tonight. … To be able to play that well under these circumstances I thought was a good sign."

Jeff Niemann, the struggling No. 5 starter, took the early lead and ran with it, working a career-high eight innings and 110 pitches for his team-high-matching fourth win. "A real nice job," Maddon said.

The Rays showed their usual hustle and assortment of good plays, but none better than rightfielder Ben Zobrist racing to the short wall just beyond the foul line then flipping over it as he caught — and hung onto — Matt Holliday's fly. "Absolutely beautiful," Maddon said.

The Rays — who had just one extra-base hit (Bartlett's triple), but nine walks — pretty much had their way with the struggling A's, who have lost four straight and 10 of 14 and are 13-22 overall, just ahead of the Indians for worst in league.

Bartlett was voted team MVP last season, and he's well ahead of that pace offensively. He has matched his career high with five homers, and his 22 RBIs are 15 shy of last season's total.

"Really good hack going right now," Maddon said. "His whole game is at a high level right now."

Bartlett, typically, was more down over his throwing error than pleased with his success, which he usually downplays.

"Just let me do my thing and keep it under the radar," he said. "I'll try to ride it as long as I can."

He claimed he's just "finding holes a lot more right now," and the only significant change he has made is that he's using a heavier bat — a 35-ounce log he got from former Twins teammate Justin Morneau — in batting practice. So when he swings his usual 311/2-ounce bat in the game, it "feels like a twig up there."

"Maybe that's it, maybe it's the approach or whatnot," Bartlett said. "Who cares right now?"

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com.

Jason Bartlett, Jeff Niemann help Tampa Bay Rays get back to .500 with rout 05/18/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 23, 2009 12:49pm]
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