It was a day without Evan Longoria, of course, and also B.J. Upton and, for a while, Ben Zobrist. Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon scrambled to field a team, playing Jeff Keppinger at third base against a right-handed pitcher even though Keppinger is here to hit lefties and hasn’t played third base in three years.
And it worked.
Keppinger’s two-run homer in the second inning tied the score and the Rays scored all of their runs in the second for a 4-3 victory against the Seattle Mariners in front of 11,575 fans at Tropicana Field.
"Keppinger’s home run was big, obviously in that moment," Maddon said. "That got us going in the right direction."
Throw in a shutdown performance by lefty reliever Jake McGee, who retired all seven batters he faced, and the ninth save in nine tries from Fernando Rodney, and the Rays (18-8) own the best record in baseball.
They have won five in a row and 11 of their past 12.
"We’re not missing a beat when guys go down," winning pitcher Jeff Niemann said. "That’s just kind of what this organization is built on."
Upton sat out the matinee to nurse the right quad that cramped up on him during Wednesday’s win. Zobrist, who had five hits in his past 21 at-bats, was not in the starting lineup for the first time this season.
Desmond Jennings moved to center field and Brandon Allen started in left.
With Zobrist out, Maddon started Will Rhymes at second and gave Keppinger his first start at third base since the 2009 season, even though it meant Keppinger would face right-hander Kevin Millwood. Keppinger entered the game batting .476 against left-handers and .147 against righties.
Millwood got the first two outs in the second inning before Rhymes reached on a slow grounder to third base. Keppinger followed with his sixth hit in 34 at-bats against righties, but it was a big hit — a two-run shot to left.
"That’s who we are," Maddon said of Rhymes’ rally-starting hit. "We have to play that game every night. We can’t take a night off mentally regarding how hard we want to play the game. It’s got to be with that maximum effort and we do it every night, and Will definitely fits into the blueprint."
The Rays’ No.8 and No.9 hitters, Chris Gimenez and Sean Rodriguez, followed with singles. Both scored when Jennings tripled to right-center field.
After that it was up to Niemann, who threw 52/3 innings and allowed three runs, and McGee, who was perfect for 21/3 and was able to get the lead to Rodney.
Maddon changed the lineup after six innings, sending Zobrist to right and moving Matt Joyce to left. He moved Rodriguez to third and sent Elliot Johnson in to play shortstop in an effort to get his "good hands" team on the field to protect the lead.
"I love to have everybody involved," Maddon said. "Everybody has a piece of the ownership."
Expect to see more of that while the Rays move along during the next six to eight weeks as Longoria recovers from a partially torn left hamstring. Especially because Maddon will not shy away from giving players days off to keep them healthy.
"We are not just a cookie-cutter club," Maddon said. "Different guys have to play different roles, especially now with Longo out, especially on a day like (Thursday) when I did not want to start B.J.’s engine at all. He’s going to play (tonight). I did not want to start him up. Didn’t even want to play Zobrist. He was kind of unchallenged during the course of the game, so that worked out well, too.
"Always trying to keep one eye on the big picture, the macro thing, you got to go micro, too. You got to think about September and October, man, and you got to keep guys fresh."