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Must C Clutch: Rays rally in the ninth, walk off

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Before Saturday's contest, injured reliever J.P. Howell conducted a live batting practice with every member of the Rays watching behind the backstop. When he was finished, one of the first players to greet him off the mound was one of the newest members of the Rays, Johnny Damon.

Rays manager Joe Maddon then discussed how he sensed his team had a visceral connection similar to the one the 2008 roster had -- one that played a huge role in Maddon conjuring up the slogan "9=8" and helped propel the Rays into the World Series.

While it may be early, what Damon has done over the past five games for the Rays may induce Maddon to eventually christen this year's team with some type of motto.

Damon produced his second walk-off hit in three days with a bases-loaded single off Twins reliever Jose Mijares that scored B.J. Upton from third and propelled the Rays to a 4-3 victory over the Twins on Saturday in front of 16,428 at Tropicana Field. The win made it five in a row for the streaking Rays, who have also won six of their last eight, and makes the 0-6 start to the season seem like a distant event.

"That's a fantastic thing," said Ben Zobrist, who gave Damon the opportunity for his heroics with a game-tying home run off Twins closer Joe Nathan to start the ninth. "He's just so consistent with his attitude and his approach to the game that it carries over to the rest of the team."

The Rays once again had to battle back after being stymied for most of the game by Twins starter Scott Baker, who allowed one run on four hits over seven innings before giving way to Twins reliever Matt Capps. Capps, who allowed a two-run walk-off homer to Damon in the 10th inning of Tampa Bay's 4-3 win on Thursday, gave up a run in the eighth on Matt Joyce's RBI single, as the Rays closed the deficit to 3-2.

Joyce had another productive game batting in the third spot of the order, going 2-for-4 to extend his hitting streak to five games. He is now 11-for-21 with four doubles over those five contests to raise his batting average .293.

"That guy has just been hitting the ball solid and it's been great for us," said Damon, who extended his hitting streak to eight games and moved into 81st place with Ernie Banks on the all-time hit list with 2,583.

Twins manager Ron Gardenhire brought Nathan out to start the ninth, and Zobrist quickly greeted the right-hander with 250 career saves with a deep shot to right field for a 3-3 tie. Upton then had a productive plate appearance, reached first with a walk and stole second base during an at-bat by Casey Kotchman, who eventually walked.

After Nathan induced John Jaso into a flyout to left, Gardenhire replaced Nathan with Mijares. The 26-year-old left-hander struck out Eliot Johnson, who was pinch-hitting for Reid Brignac, walked Sam Fuld and allowed Damon's walk-off hit, as Nathan notched his third blown save in his last four opportunities against the Rays.

Damon's hit to right field gave him five consecutive contests with a game-winning RBI. The last player to accomplish that feat was the Angels' Troy Glaus, who did it six times in a row from May 8-14, 2002.

"John has really picked us up in the latter part of the game, and over these past few games," Maddon said. "It's nice to have a guy of his stature come in, and he preaches and backs it up. He's the perfect fit for our clubhouse right now, with all the youth out there and some young veterans. He's backing it up and supporting everything I've heard about this guy. He's exactly what we needed."

Lost in all of Damon's heroics was Jeff Niemann's first quality start of the season, as the 28-year-old right-hander held the Twins to three runs on eight hits over seven innings.

"He started out slowly, but I thought he got better," Maddon said. "He looked like he was in a better tempo. I was more comfortable in what I was seeing. He started to get the fastball down in the zone. He's got to feel pretty good about that. That's a great day's work."

Niemann, who allowed 10 combined runs, eight earned, in his first two starts, was efficient over his 108-pitch outing, as the tall right-hander kept the Rays in the game.

"My fastball location was the biggest difference today," said Niemann. "This feels like it should. We have a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of excitement now."

Niemann's only hiccups on the day were a solo homer to Jason Kubel in the second inning, a run by Alexi Casilla in the third on a double-play ball and a run in the fifth on an RBI triple by Tampa-resident Denard Span.

Baker was even more impressive, as he kept the Rays relatively tame. Baker, who entered the contest having allowed eight runs and 12 hits in two losses to start the season, retired the Rays' first six hitters and had just one hiccup over his 96-pitch outing, in which he struck out six and walked one.

The Rays plated their only run off Baker during their turn at bat in the third, when Kotchman singled, advanced to third on a single to right by John Jaso and scored on a sacrifice fly by Sam Fuld.

The Twins lost for the fourth consecutive game and the seventh time in nine to drop to 5-10 on the season. The Rays recognize how they could have been where the Twins are now, and appreciate their timely hitting.

"It seems like forever ago," Zobrist said, when asked about the Rays' 0-6 start. "The first win [against the White Sox] felt like winning a division title, and it's been great the way the team has been batting since then, and the way our pitching has been. Good pitching, timely hitting. It's a great way to build team confidence. And it doesn't hurt to have a guy like Johnny Damon playing with you."

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