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SEA@TB: Jennings plates two runs with triple for lead

ST. PETERSBURG -- Will Rhymes allowed himself a moment to reminisce on Thursday afternoon.

The Rays' infielder and Jeff Niemann, their starting pitcher on Thursday, were teammates at Houston's Lamar High School. Thursday's game was the first time the close friends had played together in a regular season Major League game.

"That was pretty special, man," said Rhymes, who started at second base. "I was standing out there thinking about that today. We started playing together when we were like 13. We were on the same team in Pony League, then All-Star teams and through high school and stuff. So that was a while ago now, so it was pretty special to stand out there behind him. Try to make plays for him."

And Rhymes did just that, igniting a second-inning rally that proved to be all the Rays needed in a 4-3 win over the Mariners at Tropicana Field, before a crowd of 11,575.

Not only did the Rays sweep their four-game series against the Mariners, they also won their ninth straight at Tropicana Field, moving to 12-1 at home. After winning their fifth straight game and their 11th of the last 12, the Rays now own the best record in the Major Leagues at 18-8.

The Mariners had just scratched out two runs against Niemann in the top of the second to take a 2-0 lead when Rhymes stepped to the plate with two outs and nobody aboard.

Rhymes, who spent Spring Training with the Rays, re-joined the team late Tuesday night, with Evan Longoria heading to the disabled list. The 29-year-old infielder had two hits in the Rays' 5-4 win Wednesday night. On Thursday, he slashed an infield single to third against Mariners starter Kevin Millwood, and suddenly the Rays were in business in the second.

Jeff Keppinger followed with a two-run homer. Chris Gimenez and Sean Rodriguez put together singles, then Desmond Jennings cleaned the bases with a triple that gave the Rays a 4-2 lead.

"That was cool, you know, to get that many runs with two outs," Rhymes said. "Keppinger, huge hit there, obviously. Desmond, too. Two-out runs are great, they really pick up the team and change the momentum."

Longoria, B.J. Upton and Ben Zobrist were all out of the starting lineup on Thursday, which magnified the contributions of Rhymes, Keppinger and Gimenez, who normally don't start.

"They played a big part in the victory," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "I love to have everybody involved. Everybody has a piece of the ownership here. And because of that, you get that kind of clubhouse where people don't sit around and start talking or thinking the wrong things. Everybody participates here. I think that's a big part of our team chemistry and the concept."

Added Keppinger: "I think that's what you have to do, even if you've got Longoria in there. Obviously we're going to rely on him big-time offensively, but throughout the course of the season, you've got to have different guys step up in different situations and come through and you can make it to the playoffs. I've never been there, so I can't say I've ever had that happen with my teams, but it's good to see that with this team."

Niemann got a lift from the Rays' offense answering the Mariners in the second.

"That was huge," Niemann said. "Every part of what we've been doing has been good. But the offense is there every single day and you know they're going to score runs for you. It was definitely huge to get those four after we got two."

Ichiro Suzuki doubled home a run in the fifth to cut the lead to 4-3.

The Mariners threatened again in the sixth, when former Rays catcher John Jaso led off with his second double of the game. Niemann didn't buckle, striking out Mike Carp and Justin Smoak swinging before Maddon called on hard-throwing lefty Jake McGee to face left-handed hitting Michael Saunders.

The count moved to 2-2 when McGee cut loose with a 96 mph fastball that Saunders watched for strike three to end the threat.

McGee looked overpowering, adding a scoreless eighth to his Thursday line. Fernando Rodney then entered the game in the ninth and successfully converted his ninth save in nine chances to preserve the victory.

"Somehow, they do it with the big hit or something like that," Jaso said. "That game today was a big inning. That's something you've got to stay out of, because those big innings will get you. Today they got us and some small ball here and there on our side kind of got us, too."

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