ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Fernando Rodney’s “moonshot” returned to the mound, and the dance party returned to the home clubhouse. Manager Joe Maddon returned to his positive outlook about the uncertain weeks ahead, and the Tampa Bay Rays returned to being winners.
That title has been rare of late, but Thursday night, it fit this group living on the edge well. So often here and on the Rays’ skid throughout the West Coast, the postgame scene involving them had resembled a mausoleum. There was silence, awkwardness, a stiff aura that was appropriate for their dwindling lead for the American League’s second wild-card spot.
Thursday, following a 4-3 victory over the Boston Red Sox — which served as a deep breath as much as anything — there was time to let loose a little. Smoke from a postgame celebration hung above the clubhouse carpet. Maddon said, with a straight face, “We’re looking forward to playing them again in the playoffs.”
For one night, in what seemed like a long time since this last occurred, the Rays had no reason to peek over their shoulder at the charging New York Yankees, Cleveland Indians, Baltimore Orioles and Kansas City Royals. For one night, they had taken care of business on their terms.
“I’ve been talking about the inches, the battle of the inches,” Maddon said.
“That’s what this game is all about. When you get to this point, when you get this kind of competition against these kind of teams, there are always these little moments that occur. It is about inches, whether it goes your way or not. Finally, we got a break tonight.”
The break came in the sixth inning, with the scored tied at 3, when Wil Myers sliced a double off an 85-mph slider from reliever Rubby De La Rosa that trickled about six inches from the right field line. Evan Longoria, who had reached on a ground rule double off De La Rosa earlier, scored easily.
Perhaps the organic moment that Maddon had searched for in recent days had arrived. Often during the Rays’ dry spell, too-close-for-comfort plays had gone against them. There were misplayed balls in the outfield, a game lost on a “bad slider” from reliever Roberto Hernandez, swings that caught nothing but air to end an inning with the bases loaded. And all those occurred in the past two days.
There was a feeling that something, anything, would go wrong for this reeling group if given the chance. In recent weeks, that was the way of life as their comfortable lead for the second AL wild-card spot became limited, then treacherous at best.
Thursday, for only the second time in their last seven games, they won. Will the feeling last, into a three-game series with the Minnesota Twins this weekend and beyond? That remains to be seen.
But one night spent celebrating, not sweating about where they will spend October, was a fine reprieve for them.
“We needed a win bad,” Myers said. “With the wild card getting tight, we needed a win here. We didn’t want to get swept by those guys, so I think that was a good team. … It’s big. We’ve got to keep winning. We don’t need just one and lose tomorrow. We need to win this series coming up and keep it going the rest of the year.”
Before beginning the next step, however, there was a chance to bid farewell to those relentless Red Sox, a rival that was nothing short of masterful against the Rays. Boston won the season series, 12-7, posting the most victories in a single campaign against Tampa Bay since claiming 13 in 2007.
Back in the clubhouse, Maddon never paused as he sat in that familiar chair behind his desk and offered a postseason prediction. Indeed, he had envisioned a renewal of this rivalry next month, with much greater stakes at play.
The Rays still have plenty of work to do to guarantee a season that stretches beyond September. But Thursday night, after what seemed like too long, their winning feeling returned.