ST. PETERSBURG — The stars of Thursday's game — Will Rhymes, Jeff Keppinger and Jake McGee among them — were not names necessarily associated with the best team in the majors. But a month into the season, after completing a four-game sweep of the Mariners with a 4-3 matinee victory, the Rays are exactly that, atop the standings with an 18-8 record.
And while they can't honestly say they wouldn't have it any other way — because obviously they'd rather have standouts such as third baseman Evan Longoria and reliever Kyle Farnsworth playing — they are certainly proud to be able to do it their way, with an all-out effort from just about everyone on the roster.
"That's what this team is built on," starter Jeff Niemann said. "That's just how it is. And that's the way we like it to be."
Already missing Longoria for up to two months, the Rays fielded a lineup also without centerfielder B.J. Upton (quad tightness) and second baseman Ben Zobrist (day off), and with journeyman callup Chris Gimenez behind the plate.
And when they got behind 2-0 early, there was a vibe at mostly empty Tropicana Field — an announced crowd of 11,575 making it a four-game total of 40,842 — that their winning streak was about to end.
But, quickly, the unfamiliar names at the bottom of the order put them back on top, and they went on to win their fifth straight, and 11th of their last 12. "A great feeling," Niemann said.
Rhymes, called up Tuesday, got them revved with two outs and nobody on in the second inning, hustling to beat out a grounder to third for a single. "Just excited to contribute," he said. "I don't really care what I do."
Three pitches later, Keppinger, signed to face left-handers but starting against a right-hander, and at third base for the first time since 2009, clubbed a homer to left to tie it. He put to use advice he solicited from outfielder Desmond Jennings on hitting fastballs.
"Big, obviously," manager Joe Maddon said.
Gimenez, continuing to handle his first extended big-league opportunity well, restarted the rally with a single. Sean Rodriguez, the starting shortstop who will also lend a hand at third, followed with another hit. With the lineup flipped, leadoff man Jennings took it from there, with a triple that made it 4-2.
There was the usual amount of credit-sharing afterward, about whether Rhymes or Keppinger or Jennings got the biggest hit, but the consensus was clear:
"It seems like someone else almost steps up every day," said McGee, who emerged from a shorthanded bullpen to record seven outs, with Fernando Rodney finishing for his ninth save. "(It's) everyone playing together and everyone pulling together."
No matter who they are.
"We're not missing a beat when guys go down," Niemann said. "That's just kind of what this organization is built on and what we've been able to do."
And a prime reason for the big smile in the manager's office.
"I love this," Maddon said. "I love to have everybody involved. Everybody has a piece of the ownership and because of that you get that kind of clubhouse where people don't sit around and start talking and thinking the wrong things. Everybody participates here and because of that I think that's a big part of our team chemistry and the concept.
"And furthermore, they're all good."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]ay.com.