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NYM@TB: Rauch retires three straight to stifle Rays

ST. PETERSBURG -- Music thumped as the Mets went through their back-slapping routine in the visitors' clubhouse. Johan Santana credited Jon Rauch for preserving his victory in Thursday's 9-6 Mets win over the Rays. Rauch credited Terry Collins for maintaining faith in him. Kirk Nieuwenhuis credited just about everyone on the team for helping him adapt to the big leagues.

What an unexpected scene it was at Tropicana Field. What a bizarre, unpredictable and ultimately resilient club these Mets are turning out to be. Just last week, they dropped five of six to the Nationals and Yankees, losing several wrenching games that threatened to unravel their early-season successes.

And now this.

Rather than sink themselves by July, the Mets capped their most difficult road trip of the season with a three-game sweep of the Rays, taking Thursday's finale on the strength of three home runs. After scoring a total of seven runs in three games last weekend at Yankee Stadium, the Mets plated no fewer than nine in each of their three wins in Tampa Bay, against a team that came into the series with the top-ranked pitching staff in the American League.

"That's the whole reason why baseball's an interesting game," said outfielder Jason Bay, who contributed one of the three homers. "We're not really built to score nine, 10, 11 a night."

But the Mets did so Thursday in rather convincing fashion, against a team not built to allow that sort of pop. Nieuwenhuis proved to be the brightest offensive star in the finale, parlaying his first career leadoff homer into his first multihomer game. After Nieuwenhuis opened the game with a line shot to right field against Rays starter Jeremy Hellickson, the rookie took Hellickson deep again in the fourth inning for a two-run homer to left.

"I didn't really think the last one was going out," Nieuwenhuis said. "But I'm glad I got the job done."

In between, Bay logged a solo home run, one of his two hits in 23 at-bats since returning from the disabled list.

The Mets appeared to put the game out of reach when Lucas Duda knocked out Hellickson with a two-run double in the fourth. But Miguel Batista and Frank Francisco combined to put the tying run on base in the ninth, with Francisco finally punching out Zobrist on a controversial half-swing to end the game.

"Either way, Francisco threw a fantastic pitch," Zobrist said, noting that the closer struggled to throw his splitter for strikes earlier in the inning. "That was probably the best pitch he could have thrown in that situation. I thought I held up, but that was a good pitch."

The game seemed equally in doubt three innings earlier, when Mets starter Johan Santana loaded the bases on two singles and a walk with no outs in the sixth. But two days after Collins vowed to keep his struggling reliever as far away as possible from late-inning drama, Rauch entered in a four-run game, recording two strikeouts and a groundout to squelch the Rays' threat.

"I've screwed up plenty of his games so far, so it was nice," Rauch said of Santana. "It was nice to support him for a change."

Tampa Bay took its only lead in the second inning, when Matt Joyce doubled home two runs against Santana and Elliott Johnson followed with a two-out RBI single. But after Zobrist plated the Rays' fourth run with a run-scoring double in the third inning, Santana settled into a groove until the sixth.

In his second start since throwing the first no-hitter in franchise history, Santana allowed four runs in five-plus innings, striking out six, walking four and noting afterward that he was better able to spot his fastball to the inside part of the plate.

The result, for his team, was an almost nonsensical sweep of one of the best clubs in baseball -- in their city, in their dome, on their artificial turf. Though the Rays have struggled to hit with consistency so far this season, they have also had little trouble pitching their way through ballgames, even against the daunting lineups of the AL East.

Until, that is, the scuffling Mets came to town, bashing homers with uncharacteristic frequency and rapping out 29 runs in three games.

"It could have been very easy to be down, no question," Bay said. "I guess it's the resiliency cliché."

None of his teammates could explain it any better. Of course, there have been false starts before for the Mets, who beat up on American League teams in 2010 and 2011 before falling flat later those summers.

All the Mets can do is hope that this time, this version of the club will be able to sustain its successes.

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