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Vargas, Mariners Open Three-Game Series With Rays In Tampa Friday

(Sports Network) - It's safe to say the Tampa Bay Rays can start to ready their plans for playoff baseball. But whether it will be as a division champion or a wild-card entry remains to be seen.

Tampa Bay will try to lower its magic number to clinch a playoff spot this evening in the opener of a three-game series versus the Seattle Mariners at Tropicana Field.

After losing the first two games of a key American League East showdown versus the Yankees, the Rays battled back to split the set and gain a season-series victory, which will favor the club if it is tied with New York at year's end.

Thursday's 10-3 victory pulled Tampa Bay back to within a half-game of New York and lowered its magic number to clinch a playoff spot to four with 10 games remaining.

The Rays, looking to win the AL East for the second time in club history and first since 2008, face the Mariners,Orioles and Royals to close the season, while the Yankees face the Red Sox six times around a three-game set at the Blue Jays.

Tampa Bay swept a three-game set in Seattle from May 4-6 before taking two of three at home from the club later in the month.

Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton both had two-run hits during Tampa Bay's seven- run sixth inning on Thursday, with Crawford ending with three hits. David Price won his 18th game of the season, yielding three runs on eight hits and four walks with seven strikeouts in six innings.

"It definitely does feel pretty good," Upton said. "We were in a situation where we definitely could have walked out of here with a series loss. We played a good game [Wednesday] and came back [Thursday] and played even better. To go down 2-0 in the series and come back and get a split against these guys at home, that's playing pretty good baseball."

The Rays, who own a seven-game lead in the AL Wild Card race, will try to get Jeff Niemann on track this evening versus a club he has never lost to.

The right-hander is 0-4 with a 14.43 earned run average over his last five starts since returning from a right shoulder injury, lasting just 4 1/3 innings in a loss to the Angels on Saturday while giving up five runs on six hits, two homers and three walks. Niemann, who hasn't won since Aug. 3, fell to 10-7 with a 4.48 ERA in 27 starts this year.

The 27-year-old is 2-0 with a 3.20 ERA in four career starts versus the Mariners, including a win at Seattle on May 6. Niemann gave up four hits over seven scoreless innings in that one.

The Mariners' Jason Vargas is on even worse of a skid than Niemann, as he has lost six straight starts since his last victory on Aug. 14. The left-hander's slide was extended with a setback versus Texas on Saturday, with Vargas allowing five runs over six innings.

"[The Rangers] swing the bat real well and they don't let you make mistakes very often," said Vargas. "I thought I threw the ball better than the scoreboard showed."

The 27-year-old is still 9-11 with a 3.75 ERA in 29 starts despite his losing streak, but is 0-1 with a 3.14 ERA lifetime versus the Rays in three games (two starts).

Vargas will hope teammate Ichiro Suzuki can help spark some offensive support tonight after extending his own MLB record with a 10th straight 200-hit season Thursday in Toronto. Suzuki had a pair of hits to match Pete Rose's all- time mark for most 200-hit seasons in a career, but couldn't get the M's offense going in a 1-0 loss.

"Today, after I accomplished 200 hits, when I looked to the dugout everyone was celebrating, everyone was pretty happy," Ichiro told Seattle's website through a translator afterward. "They were showing that [celebratory] feeling. That's when I finally felt like I could express my feelings in a good way, where I could say I'm happy for what I've achieved."

Felix Hernandez fell to 12-12 on the season despite his sixth complete game of the year. The right-hander gave up just one homer -- Jose Bautista's 50th of the season -- and two hits over eight innings, while walking four.

Seattle has lost 10 of its last 13 games.