Extra innings triumph may be turning point for Rays

August 5th, 2009 by

ST. PETERSBURG - The timeless classic “Rock Around The Clock” echoed from the speakers hanging over Tropicana Field as Tuesday night turned into Wednesday morning. On the playing surface below, the Tampa Bay Rays prepared to bat in the 13th inning, tied with Boston in a game that was timeless in a much different way.

The game had been won and lost so many times by both teams already. The Rays had already seen the potential winning run called back because an overthrown ball got stuck between bags in their bullpen. They twice failed to score with no outs and the bases loaded.

They weren’t alone in frustration, though.

The Red Sox left the bases full in the 10th, and in the top of the fateful 13th had seen Evan Longoria snatch a line drive bid for a double by Kevin Youkilis off his ankles just as it seemed destined to shoot past into the corner. So it was no doubt fitting that Longoria finally brought an end to the madness when he sent a pitch from Takashi Saito, the seventh Boston pitcher, deep into the left field seats just one out away from a 14th inning and who-knows-what-else.

It was 12:06 a.m., 4 hours and 57 minutes after the evening began.

A fair portion of the original crowd of 29,873 remained, but it’s almost as if they, too, were too drained to really let loose. There was an eruption and the inevitable back-pounding celebration at home plate when Longoria arrived, but most everyone was just glad to get it over with.

It was Longoria’s second homer of the game and scored catcher Michele Hernandez ahead of him, giving he Rays had a 4-2 victory that counts just one game in the standings but somehow seems like much more.

“Relief. Just relief,” Manager Joe Maddon said, when asked to explain it all in the drained Rays clubhouse after.

Relief is as good an explanation as any for a game that otherwise would defy description.

Consider that:

The Rays struck out 16 times, including four each by Longoria and B.J. Upton and three by Willy Aybar. Yet Longoria was the hitting hero and Upton ran down a couple of key balls in center field to keep pushing the Red Sox back.

The Rays went through every position player they had, which is why Hernandez – one of the slowest guys on the team – was still in position to score what technically was the winning run. He had led off the 13th by walking, but Maddon couldn’t send anyone in to pinch run.

“It was a crazy night, just crazy. That’s all I can say,” starter Matt Garza said, and that seems as apt a description as any. Garza’s work in keeping the game close – he allowed only a pair of solo homers in seven innings – was yet another patch in the fabric of perhaps the wildest game of the season.

But as he looked across the room toward Longoria’s locker, Garza could only shake his head and added, “That guy, he plays the game day in and day out. Unbelievable.”

As a practical matter, it pulled the Rays just one game closer to Boston for the American League wild card – and it’s still much too early to be focused solely on that. There’s no getting around the fact, though, that this would have been a devastating game to lose considering how the game had ebbed and flowed.

Boston led 2-0 before Longoria led off the eighth with his first homer of the night. It came against Boston’s Daniel Bard, who hadn’t allowed a homer all season and had not allowed an earned run in his last 12 outings, covering 14 innings. While that was an electric moment by itself, what happened after that was for the ages.

Ben Zobrist walked and ran toward second when Aybar put down a good bunt. Bard made a good situation better for the Rays by throwing the ball down the right field line for an error. Zobrist and Aybar both ran around and scored, but right fielder J.D. Drew held up his hands and signaled that the ball had gotten stuck on Rays bullpen equipment.

The umpires agreed and ordered both runners back on the bases. The Rays did not score.

“They [umpires] told me it lodged between two bags,” Maddon said. “Once he said that, I have nowhere to go. I have no argument, I have no nothing. It’s really an unfortunate play. To not have won that game based on that play would have been really annoying – about as annoying as that word can be.

“The fact we were able to pull through it was really good. That was really an exasperating moment. I may have used that word several times because that game could suck a little bit out of you right there.”

Umpires have warned the Rays in the past about the clutter around their bullpen bench. Maddon took total blame.

“It’s a once-in-a-million situation,” he said. “You can win or lose a pennant by one game.”

So on we played, and played, and played.

The Red Sox sent 45 men to the plate. Longoria was the 44th at-bat for the Rays when he hit the homer that finally won it.

“I had faced Saito before so I kind of knew what he was featuring,” Longoria said. “He left the ball up in the zone. I’m just happy the game is over. I hit it pretty good. The celebration might have been a little bit excessive but I was just happy that we won the game and it was over. It was a marathon.”

The Rays greet this morning 11 games over .500 for the first time this year. They trail the Sox by four games for the wild card. That’s important, but the more interesting question now is what’s in store for an encore tonight. As we have seen in the last year or so, there’s always a chance that something historic will break out when the Rays and Red Sox play.

If it’s not Dan Johnson stepping off a plane from Durham and hitting a 9th-inning homer to send a big game last September at Fenway into extra innings (the Rays eventually won), it’s David Price coming out of the bullpen to nail down the American League pennant.

There have been brawls, beanballs, massive comebacks and spectacular finishes. This one deserves to take its place as one of the more memorable games these two have ever had against each other.

There was little celebration inside the clubhouse when it was over, though. Whatever energy – emotional or physical – the players had was left on the field. They’ll be back at it tonight, though, with heightened stakes and a sense that anything can happen.

When these two teams play, it’s best to expect something strange.

Oh, and to pack a lunch. Chances are you’ll be there a good, long while.


One Response

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