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.
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.
"It was great. Couldn't have it any better, could we? I was very happy with how everything worked out,'' said Carlos Pena, who called the meeting. "Obviously we got an incredible pitching performance by Niemann. We were able to rally and put some hits together, which is great. And we kept coming the whole game, it's not like we backed off. Then the bullpen came in and did a great job.
"So that's perfect. That's what we're capable of doing. Most importantly, I loved the fact that the guys were enjoying themselves and having a good time out there. And everything else took care of itself, so it was nice.''
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, surpassing the career 100-RBI mark in his 135th game.
"It was a good time to start swinging the bats, and hopefully we can keep swinging the bats well and get something going on this road trip,'' Crawford said. "It's nice when you've got everybody going on all cylinders. Hopefully we can keep that flow going.''
Manager Joe Maddon liked what they did, and how they did it.
"You saw the line drives today. There was a much better approach. We were on the ground more, we were on a line more, opposite field more. All the things we were talking about before the game just started showing up,'' he said.
"Just a little bit better thought process going into the at-bat, which is necessary. When things aren't going well, everybody wants to get it done, everybody wants to help break you out of that bad moment. But then again, it's all about each guy doing his job per at-bat, and we did a much better job of that tonight.''
Peña 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," Peña said, "and that's it."
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 Peña wasn't the only one who spoke. "We go around the room," Peña 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.
"It was good overall,'' Niemann said. "Things were rolling and clicking, it was good to feel that.''
Pitching with a three-run lead, he retired the first 12 Mariners, with only three balls hit out of the infield, relying primarily on his fastball. He lost the perfect game and the no-hitter rather quickly fifth but didn't lose his composure, and that's the primary reason he ended up with the win.
"I just saw a confident guy that pitched a pretty good baseball game,'' Maddon said. "He held it together very nicely. We believed that about him leaving spring training, we believed he had good makeup and we saw him as a tough guy. ... I like what he's doing.''
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 Peña 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.
"We've been working with (sports psychologist Ken Ravizza) helping us out with the mental part, taking it pitch to pitch,'' Niemann said. "There's always a solution - however bad things may be, or have gone in the past few hitters, there's always a way out of it. You just have to take it pitch to pitch and can't let it snowball and unravel on you.''
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. The nine runs were more than their last three games combined, and their most since the April 13 home opener, as were their 15 hits.
"I think we just need to settle in a little bit more,'' Longoria said. "We don't have a whole lot of time, we don't want to say "We've got a bunch of time, we've got a bunch of time," when in reality if we don't start winning some games here it's going to get tough to get back into the race. This is a good start. We need to start winning a bunch of games in a row and get back above .500.''
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]