Friday began with a loss for the Rays in terms of All-Star third baseman Evan Longoria being out until possibly the middle of next week with a strained left quad.
But the Rays ended the evening gaining quite a bit in their 5-3 victory over the last-place Mariners in front of 17,840 at Tropicana Field. They got an encouraging start by right-hander Jeff Niemann, who gave up three runs over 52/3 innings in his best outing and first win since coming off the disabled list.
"I felt great," he said, "felt back to normal."
They received a lift from Willy Aybar, Longoria's replacement in the cleanup spot, as he knocked in the go-ahead run with a single during the Rays' three-run fifth inning.
They witnessed a club record in Rafael Soriano's 44th save of the year.
But most important, Tampa Bay gained ground in the standings, moving back into sole possession of first place in the American League East thanks to the Yankees' 10-8 loss to the Red Sox.
The Rays (92-61) lead New York by a half-game with nine games left. In addition, they lowered their magic number for reaching the playoffs to three and tied the Twins, who lost 10-1 to the Tigers, for the best record in the AL.
For Niemann (11-7), the win, which snapped a career-long five-game losing streak, meant a lot. He entered Friday 0-4 with a 14.43 ERA in five starts since coming off the DL (right shoulder strain) last month. His struggles hurt his chances at making the postseason rotation.
Niemann was far from dominant against Seattle but looked better, working his way out of a couple of jams during a 79-pitch outing.
"I feel like we're there," Niemann said. "We … scuffled a little bit, pitching bad and not having the ball bounce your way. But (Friday), everything fell back into place, and we got it done."
The Rays continued their seasonlong success against left-handed starters (improving to 36-17 against them). B.J. Upton and Jason Bartlett served as catalysts atop the lineup, combining for three hits and three runs. Upton scored the go-ahead run in the fifth on Aybar's single, and the Rays added two more.
Manager Joe Maddon said he was impressed with his team's effort and intensity coming off the big four-game series in New York, especially considering the flight home arrived about 3 a.m. Friday.
Players said they can't afford to let up.
"We've still got to take care of business," Upton said. "Anything can happen between now and (Oct. 3, the final day of the regular season). We just have to keep playing good baseball."
Getting another good start from Niemann next week will help. His 52/3 innings Friday were his most since he came off the DL and helped him to his first victory since Aug. 3.
"Overall, better command of everything," Maddon said of Niemann. "Better presence on the mound, he looked a lot more confident."
The giveaway at the Trop was a Soriano T-shirt that read, "Dominate Late."
So it was only fitting that Soriano capped the win with his 44th save (among 47 chances), surpassing Roberto Hernandez's franchise record set in 1999.
Maddon said Soriano, acquired in the offseason from the Braves, "has totally changed the fabric of our bullpen and has permitted us to be this good."
Soriano was happy with the milestone but said the team's record is most important.
"I didn't come here because I wanted to tie a record somebody had before. I signed to win," he said.
"That's what I'm here for. I know there will be a lot of things that happen to me this year, and I'm happy with that, too."
. fast facts
AL East standings
W L GB
Rays' magic number
3 Combination of Rays wins and Red Sox losses needed to clinch a postseason berth.