Yet again, Rays keep season alive in dramatic fashion

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The after-party in the Tampa Bay Rays’ clubhouse was predictably wild and free, both traits that fit these survivors well.

There were yells and drums banged and other familiar noises when catcher Jose Lobaton walked through a corridor with a wide grin and his blue hat turned backward, the man of the moment pausing to blow a kiss to a fan nearby.

This was minutes after he smacked a game-ending, 412-foot solo homer to center field — the third ever to splash into the Rays’ Touch Tank — ending an exhausting four-hour, 19-minute cliffhanger at Tropicana Field that guaranteed these never-say-die Rays will play at least one more day.

How’s this for drama? The Rays, somehow, beat the mighty Boston Red Sox 5-4 on Monday night, after falling behind by three runs 5 1/2 innings into this win-or-stay-home game, after losing a one-run lead in the top of the ninth inning under Fernando Rodney’s watch, after Lobaton entered the batter’s box against Koji Uehara with two outs and no postseason walk-off hits to his name since he entered the majors in 2009.

The Red Sox lead this American League Division Series two games to one, but momentum has shifted to the Rays’ side.

Convention, it seems, went out the window long ago with these Rays since they played the first of three consecutive must-win games Sept. 29 at Toronto.

What’s another obstacle? What’s another challenge? What’s another win-at-all-costs scenario, with no easy way to read or navigate this maze?

“We don’t want to lose,” Lobaton said. “And that’s a big situation for us now. We have to win. … I know this team, every day (we) go out to do (our) best. And that happened today. That happened in Cleveland. That happened in Texas. Every time we go out, we do our best. And today was one of those days.”

Certainly it was, with the Rays countering each Red Sox move with a swing of their own. First, there was Evan Longoria’s three-run homer to tie the game in the fifth inning. Then there was Delmon Young’s RBI groundout to first base in the eighth, scoring Sam Fuld. Then there were Lobaton’s dramatics in the ninth, which served as his career’s third walk-off hit, both of the previous feats achieved against the Toronto Blue Jays in August.

On Monday, the dugout reaction of manager Joe Maddon and pitching coach Jim Hickey to Lobaton’s hit captured this roller coaster best. As players celebrated around them, with Lobaton rounding the bases, Maddon and Hickey took in the moment and smiled at one another with delayed gratitude.

This was exhausting, but it was a victory well-earned. The result: the Rays will try to find a way to take their show back to Fenway Park later this week.

“I swear I was looking down on my card, and you’re preparing for what’s going to happen (next),” Maddon said. “And then I hear that thing you hear on the radio back in the day when you’re listening to the Cardinals on KMOX, laying on the Floor in Hazleton, Penn., that knock. And (I) look up and the ball is going towards the tank, which nobody hits home runs there. Nobody does. How about that? It’s incredible.”

It was incredible enough to wonder, if at least for one more day, how long this scrappy group could last. The Rays looked spent when down 3-0 against right-hander Clay Buchholz, after being outscored 19-6 in the opening two games of this series. A comeback looked unlikely, even implausible, against the AL’s strongest team.

But Longoria’s homer, a highlight of his 28th birthday, seemingly gave the Rays breath, much like David Price’s performance did against the Texas Rangers on Sept. 30 and Alex Cobb’s mastery of the Cleveland Indians did last Wednesday. That’s what’s remarkable about these 2013 Rays: Small moments have carried them, probably further than they should have gone to begin with.

The Rangers and Indians were both hotter, but the Rays turned them back with relative ease. The Red Sox won 14 of 21 games between these teams entering Monday, and they had every reason to expect a quick flight home. But the Rays concocted another triumph, more drama.

“When we win it like this, I feel it gives us momentum coming into tomorrow,” Rays outfielder Wil Myers said. “So I think we’re all excited to get back out here tomorrow.”

“We’re not going to give up,” first baseman James Loney said. “We believe in ourselves. Each individual person believes they can do whatever job that it is they have to (do). We’re going to keep it going.”

For them, the outlook Tuesday doesn’t look great. They’ll send struggling right-hander Jeremy Hellickson (12-10, 5.17 ERA) against right-hander Jake Peavy (12-5, 4.17 ERA), who has won four of five decisions with a 4.04 ERA since he was traded from the Chicago White Sox on July 31.

But this deep into the fall, with mounting evidence to show it’s wise to expect the unexpected with the Rays’ season at stake, it would be foolish to count them out. More twists await Tuesday. If history is a reliable guide, Tampa Bay will find some way, somehow, to punch a return trip to Boston for a decisive Game 5.

This night could have been the start to that end. Later Monday, Lobaton walked out of the Rays’ clubhouse, into a corridor toward an interview room. Along the way, he received slaps on the back from Rays employees and security personnel. Tampa Bay’s season was very much alive, the optimism clear.

“To hit a homer in that situation is something special,” Lobaton said later. “Something that you can’t explain.”

The Rays, still alive in October, are beyond explanation.

And that suits them just fine.

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