ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – The Tampa Bay Rays have momentum heading into a week of important division games.
Jeff Niemann won his sixth consecutive decision, Ben Zobrist had a two-run triple and the Rays completed a four-game sweep with a 4-1 victory over the Kansas City Royals on Thursday.
Tampa Bay starts a key six-game road trip against New York and Boston on Friday night at Yankee Stadium. The Rays started the day 8½ games behind the AL wild-card leading Yankees and trail AL East-leading Boston by 9½ games.
"Playing in our division is always a gas, and going up there to do it makes it even more fun," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "Another good test for us. We're trying to climb back in this thing one step at a time. It's up to us."
Rays left-hander David Price (9-10) will face Yankees' ace CC Sabathia (16-6) in a matchup of All-Stars in the opener of a three-game series.
"Everybody here still has that playoff mindset," Price said.
Niemann (7-4) allowed one run and nine hits over 6 1-3 innings. The right-hander is 6-0 in nine starts since returning from a strained lower back.
"Things weren't coming as easily as they have been the past few games," Niemann said. "You're going to have starts when you're not as sharp."
The Rays' first four-game home sweep since July 28-31, 2005 — also against Kansas City — included an 8-7 win Wednesday night in which Tampa Bay scored five times in the ninth.
After Joel Peralta threw 1 2-3 scoreless innings for Tampa Bay, Kyle Farnsworth pitched the ninth for his 21st save.
Rookie left-hander Danny Duffy (3-6) gave up three runs and five hits over seven innings.
The Royals had 11 hits, but ended up 1 for 9 with runners in scoring position,
"It gets real frustrating when, quite frankly, in four games and we were one hit or one pitch away from going 4-0," Kansas City manager Ned Yost said. "Three of the four runs today came on two-outs, nobody-on rallies."
Kansas City has the youngest 25-man roster in the majors.
"This is the most painful part," Yost said. "This is where it hurts. We start to really show some improvement, but you can't get over the hump in winning games. You're really close. The hardest part is maintaining your patience and maintaining your sense of reality. Exactly what you're trying to accomplish and how you're going to get there."
Tampa Bay took a 2-1 lead when Zobrist drove in two runs on a third-inning triple. Desmond Jennings tripled and scored to make it 3-1 on Evan Longoria's fifth-inning sacrifice fly.
Sean Rodriguez extended the advantage to 4-1 on an eighth-inning RBI single.
The Royals had runners on second and third with no outs in the first, but scored just one run on Eric Hosmer's grounder. Kansas City was hitless in five at-bats with runners in scoring position through two innings.
Hosmer was retired on a grounder with two on and two outs in the fifth. Niemann struck out Alex Gordon with two outs and the bases loaded one inning later.
Niemann retired 10 in a row after Alcides Escobar had an infield single with one out in the second. He is 4-0 in six games, including five starts, against Kansas City.
Rays designated hitter Johnny Damon singled during the first and moved past George Davis into 65th place on the all-time hits list with 2,684.
NOTES: Yost did not talk with his team about Wednesday's tough loss. "They're resilient," he said. "They're fine." ... Longoria has a season-high eight-game hitting streak. ... Royals LHP Bruce Chen (6-5) will go against Chicago White Sox RHP Zach Stewart (1-0) on Friday night. Chen is 1-3 with a 3.66 ERA in 12 games, including seven starts, against the White Sox. ... Royals CF Melky Cabrera had three hits in his 49th multihit game of the season.