© 2010 MLB Advanced Media, L.P. All rights reserved.

09/24/10 11:40 PM ET

Rays rise to top of American League East

ST. PETERSBURG -- Four days of playing the Yankees in New York can take a toll on a team, both mentally and physically, to the point where a letdown by the Rays could have been expected on Friday.

Instead, fueled by a three-run fifth and an improved effort by Jeff Niemann, the Rays will end Friday in first place in the American League East after defeating the Mariners, 5-3, at Tropicana Field with 17,840 watching.

Perhaps the team's youth shined through, or maybe it was the maturity of the group, but once the first pitch was thrown, the Rays were locked in.

By winning, the Rays (92-61) reversed positions with the Yankees (92-62), who lost to the Red Sox, 10-8, to finish the night a half-game back. In addition, the win allowed the Rays to whittle their magic number for making the playoffs to three.

The Rays have two more games at Tropicana Field against the Mariners over the weekend, followed by a three-game set against the Orioles to wrap up this year's home slate before they head to Kansas City to play the Royals in a four-game series to end the season.

Meanwhile, after the Yankees finish with the Red Sox, they head to Toronto to play three against the Blue Jays before finishing the season with a three-game series at Boston.

After the Rays split their four-game series with the Yankees, their charter flight took off from New York early Friday morning and touched down at Tampa International Airport at approximately 3:15 a.m. ET. Hoping to avoid any lingering effects from the travel -- as well as their stressful stay in New York -- manager Joe Maddon canceled batting practice for Friday and allowed his players to be dressed for the game later than normal.

"I'll tell you what, I feel tired," Maddon said. "And if I feel tired, I have no idea how they feel. Our guys, I was really impressed with the effort again, the focus, the intensity. Everything was there, so we did some good things in moments. They made good plays against us. We kept pushing. I thought it was great."

The Rays got a lift from the top of their order, which had B.J. Upton at leadoff and Jason Bartlett hitting second. The pair combined for three hits in six official at-bats, each of them walked twice, they scored three runs and Upton stole his 41st base of the season.

"Nice job tonight, real nice job," Maddon said. "B.J. looks really good up there right now, and good baserunning by both. They really picked the right moments to do different things. They looked really good. The whole group did a really nice job."

Niemann had an encouraging outing, snapping his career-high four-game losing streak to claim his 11th win of the season and his first since Aug. 3 against Minnesota -- his last start before going on the 15-day disabled list.

The 6-foot-9 right-hander allowed three runs on seven hits in 5 2/3 innings, regaining some of his lost confidence in the process.

"I definitely [gained some confidence]," Niemann said. "I've gone out there and scuffled a little bit. ... But tonight everything fell back in place, and I got it done."

The big offensive inning for the Rays was the fifth, when they pushed across five runs on RBI singles by Willy Aybar and Ben Zobrist -- the latter on a nifty safety squeeze -- and a passed ball by Mariners catcher Adam Moore to give the Rays a three-run lead.

"I probably could have a done a better job to control their running game," Mariners starter Jason Vargas said. "They put themselves in position that when they ran, they were able to score runs off it. That's what they do. They put pressure on you when they get on base. They safety-squeezed, and that's what they do. They have speed."

After Niemann exited, relievers Randy Choate, Grant Balfour and Joaquin Benoit allowed just two hits and no runs in 3 1/3 innings. Rafael Soriano then got the final three outs to preserve the victory and earn his 44th save of the season, setting a club record.

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.