Jose Lobaton latest Ray to provide ‘magical’ moment

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — There are moments in a special season, Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon understands, that defy logic and predictability. As they become more frequent, these sequences build upon one another, like bricks in a tall structure. They become part of a team’s identity. They become less of a surprise.

Jose Lobaton’s game-ending 375-foot solo home run to right field Sunday afternoon off reliever Brad Lincoln, clinching the Rays’ 2-1 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays in 10 innings, was such a time at Tropicana Field. Catchers are not supposed to smack game-ending triples, like Lobaton did to seal Tampa Bay’s victory over Toronto on Friday. Batters are not supposed to lift game-ending home runs after striking out their previous three at-bats, like Lobaton did Sunday to award the Rays their fourth victory in a six-game homestand.

Maddon calls such moments “magical.” But “telling” and “indicative” fit the theme as well. Tampa Bay entered this homestand on a five-game skid and promptly lost the series opener to the Seattle Mariners last Tuesday.

Now, thanks to Lobaton, who had no game-ending hits in his first three major-league seasons before Friday, the Rays fly to Camden Yards on an upswing. A West Coast swoon appears behind them.

“The magic does occur,” Maddon said. “We’ve had some pretty magical moments in the bottom part of the batting order. … Those are the kind of things when we have our better years — we get that pitching with tremendous defense and little funky things that happen. Walk-off triples by catchers. Walk-off home runs after a guy punches (out) three times. It’s got that feel to it.”

How far that feel takes the Rays remains to be seen. But certainly, Lobaton is the hour’s star. His parents, Tomas and Maria, were present from Venezuela for both dramatic endings, adding a storybook feel to the sequences. (The homestand marked the first time they had seen their son compete in the United States).

Afterward Sunday, Maddon made light of Lobaton’s parents as possible good-luck charms — “Once they’re in the ballpark, I’ll buy Mr. Lobaton’s beers, whatever he needs,” the manager said — but there is something to be said for Lobaton’s personal skill as well. This was no act requiring a rabbit’s foot.

He became the first Rays catcher to earn two game-ending hits in a season. Sunday’s deed marked the Rays’ third game-ending home run this year, along with Matt Joyce’s against the Baltimore Orioles on April 3 and Evan Longoria’s against the San Diego Padres on May 11.

On Sunday afternoon, as Rays players rushed to pack for a flight to Baltimore, Lobaton stood near his locker in a sharp white dress shirt at the same time a replay of teammates swarming him at home plate played on a television nearby. He said nothing about his approach in the final at-bat changed from his previous plate appearances. He jumped ahead in the count 1-0, after a 92-mph fastball missed, and repeated one thought in his mind.

“Put the ball in play.”

A foul ball on a 92-mph fastball.

“Put the ball in play.”

A ball on a 92-mph fastball.

“Put the ball in play.”

Another 92-mph fastball.

Game over.

“This is different,” said Lobaton, who has hit .255 with five home runs and 23 RBI this season. “(The) walk-off triple was amazing. Walk-off homer — running the bases like that, when you win the game, it’s unbelievable. It’s something that you want to do all the time. It’s a different feeling, but you want to feel it every day. Hopefully, this is not the last one. Just give me a couple more, if I can.”

Right-hander Chris Archer called Lobaton “clutch.” Infielder Sean Rodriguez said, “You basically feel like you’re on top of the world” when confidence rises, like it has for Lobaton the past three days. Yes, he has learned a few lessons in self-esteem since Friday.

For Lobaton and the Rays, there is plenty of baseball left. But they keep stacking bricks: One quirky moment here, another there, each pivotal in a tight American League East race with the Boston Red Sox.

Will Tampa Bay’s season be special? Time will tell. But with more moments like these, with Lobaton’s newfound flair for the dramatic part of the narrative, it would be little surprise to learn so.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.