SEATTLE — The Rays still have a long way to go. And even always optimistic manager Joe Maddon knows that.
But before, and again after Jeff Niemann and a rejuvenated offense produced an 8-0 victory over the Mariners on Friday night, Maddon figured it was the right time, and place, to point out that it's still possible for them to make a run for a spot in the playoffs.
"The 1995 Seattle Mariners," he said, and that was all that was needed. That was a team that was 11 games out of first place on July 30, fell to 13 back on Aug. 2, then roared back to catch, and ultimately defeat in a one-game playoff, the Angels for a playoff spot. That would be the Angels who had Maddon as their first-base coach.
"That stuff can happen,'' he said. "1995 is in my memory bank very strongly. I remember what it felt like. I remember what it tasted like. It can happen. But it only happens if you believe it can happen. If you don't believe it can happen, then it cannot. Period. So I'm a believer. And it's our job, it's my job, to convince these other 25 guys it can happen.''
But Friday, against a woeful Mariners team on a beautiful Pacific Northwest night, they had reason to believe. They won consecuitve games for the first time since early July, and for only the fourth time since May 12, they gained a game on both the Red Sox and Yankees, moving to within 9½ games of first place and seven off the wild card.
"From our perspective, if we can gain one game a week for the rest of the season, I'll take it,'' Maddon said. "That puts us in pretty good shape.''
The Rays' eight-run second-inning outburst — their biggest in more than three years, since a 10-run fifth at Florida on June 25, 2008 — got the attention Friday.
But Niemann — reportedly offered in trade this week — was worthy of applause. He struck out a career-high 11 while holding the Mariners to one hit through six innings and three total while working into the seventh.
"Outstanding,'' Maddon said.
Niemann improved to 5-4 overall, and 4-0 with a 1.88 ERA in seven starts since coming off the disabled list following a back strain. His 1.06 ERA for five July starts is a team record for any month.
"It's been fun to get back out there and help the team win,'' Niemann said.
The curveball was a key weapon Friday, and the fastball was pretty good, too. Neither Niemann nor Maddon realized he had that many strikeouts until after the game, which reflected his less-than-stellar command, as he threw 118 pitches over the 6 2/3 innings.
The Rays' outburst started innocently enough against Erik Bedard: a single by Casey Kotchman, continuing a comeback from his dismal 2010 season in Seattle, and after a Kelly Shoppach strikeout, walks to Matt Joyce and Sean Rodriguez to load the bases.
Rookie Desmond Jennings, continuing to show impressive patience at the plate, worked a full-count walk to force in the first run. A single by Johnny Damon scored two and ended the night of Bedard, as well as that of the assembled scouts from contenders seeking a starter.
Ben Zobrist hit a two-run homer off reliever Aaron Laffey to make it 6-0. Kotchman's double scored B.J. Upton from first, then Shoppach singled home Kotchman to complete the scoring. The 12 batters were also a season-high, and it made for the first time in 14 seasons the Rays had consecutive games with seven or more runs in a single frame.
"We had a really good inning,'' Zobrist said. "I think we put together some good at-bats and did some good things.''
Niemann was pitching two days after his name surfaced in trade talks, the St. Louis Post Dispatch reporting the Rays offered him and reliever J.P. Howell to the Cardinals for Colby Rasmus but were turned down. With the deadline for nonwaiver deals at 4 p.m. Sunday, there has been a lot of speculation involving the Rays.
Niemann said he wants to stay with the Rays, and acknowledged he was a bit concerned about the possibility of a trade.
"It's something that's definitely floating around the clubhouse; everyone is keeping their eyes or keeping their ears open on things," he said. "But you do your best to not let it bug you and just try to go out there and worry about the game at hand and try to do your best.
"Before, it really was nothing. But then (Wednesday) you find out your name was really actually thrown around. And it … it's not that a big a deal … there's nothing … it doesn't really matter ... it matters not at all."
Friday night, it didn't seem to bother him a bit.
Niemann certainly didn't seem bothered, as he improved to 3-0, 2.15 in four career starts at Safeco Field.