With series at stake, Rays show fortitude

Considering how the Tampa Bay Rays were tumbling lately, it was only fitting that Matt Joyce took a dramatic spill Wednesday night while lifting his team out of its tailspin.

His three-run blast in the top of the ninth at Yankee Stadium was one of the more unusual game-winners in recent memory. The clutch rip into the right field seats off New York closer David Robertson left Joyce falling to the plate with a twisted ankle from his hard follow-through, then limping heroically around the bases.

The eventual result was a 4-1 victory with a significance that shouldn’t be underestimated. The moment was akin to one of those Saturday morning cartoons where the protagonist slips off the side of a cliff, only to grab hold to a tree limb at the last instant and climb back to safety.

That’s the situation the Rays found themselves in, teetering on the brink of a fourth straight loss that could have left them reeling headlong into tonight’s 7:05 pm ET rubber match duel between towering lefty stars: Tampa Bay’s David Price (5-1, 2.35 ERA) and CC Sabathia (4-0, 4.15).

A fourth consecutive setback – especially one rife with blown scoring opportunities Wednesday – would have put the Rays at a sizeable psychological and emotional disadvantage tonight. And heading into the ninth inning with a 1-0 deficit, facing a top-tier stand-in for injured Mariano Rivera, they seemed to be on track for another difficult, frustrating defeat and a potentially disastrous road trip.

Twice before during the game, the Rays had loaded the bases and come up empty-handed. In the previous inning, they’d gotten runners on first and second with none out and failed to tie the score.

So just imagine if the game had ended 1-0. That would have allowed the Yankees to pull within two games of AL East-leading Tampa Bay and given them a blast of momentum for a sweep this evening – avenging the season-opening sweep they suffered last month at the Trop.

Just imagine the Rays wobbling into Camden Yards for their next three-game series starting Friday – lugging a five-game losing streak and facing the resurgent Orioles, who have been running neck-and-neck with Tampa Bay for the division lead (with a record of 19-11 after a rainout with Texas on Wednesday).

It could easily have gotten ugly, sending the Rays free-falling into Toronto for the two final games of the road trip against the dangerous Jays (17-14).

Those were the formidable stakes Wednesday night.

Now the Rays enter tonight’s deciding contest back on solid ground, once again leading the division with a record of 20-11, dropping the Yankees back to fourth at 16-14. And they have a chance to win the series and rebuild the momentum from their recent dominant homestand, which was soured unexpectedly by a pair of tight losses to Oakland last weekend.

They can feel good that they battled back to win without hot-hitting utility infielder Jeff Keppinger (who was just activated from the restricted list Thursday) and largely without injured lead-off man Desmond Jennings (who flew out as a pinch-hitter, still recovering from a knee injury last Sunday).

And they can feel especially encouraged by Wednesday’s effort from starter Jeff Niemann, who pitched his best game of the season: seven innings, six hits and one run that came in a mildly rocky first inning. Though he didn’t get the decision, Niemann kept the Rays in the game with an excellent mix of pitches, lowering his ERA to 3.48.

“That was as good as I’ve seen him in a while,” manager Joe Maddon told the media after the game. “That was dominating in a sense. He went through that period a few years ago when I thought he should have been Rookie of the Year. Following that into the next season, I thought he continued that same down angle, good fastball, bad swings, a lot of breaking balls for strikes. … He had a good look and a lot of confidence in what he was doing tonight. It was nice to see that.”

Price has been pitching with renewed confidence and effectiveness all season, following his disappointing 12-13 campaign last year. He’s been looking a lot more like the pitcher from 2010, when he finished as Cy Young Award runner-up with a record of 19-6 and ERA of 2.72.

What’s more, he has been particularly effective against Sabathia. In five prior matchups, he’s posted a 3-0 record with a spectacular ERA of 1.56. And his 8-6 win over the Yankees in the second game of the season – marked by 6.1 innings and only two runs allowed – raised his lifetime record against New York to 5-2 with a 3.96 ERA.

“I think his confidence is reemerging,” Maddon said. “We’ve always had confidence in him, but you have to have confidence in yourself. So the confidence is reemerging. … You combine confidence with that kind of skill level – heads up.”

On the flip side, Sabathia is 1-4 with a 3.72 ERA in his last nine games against the Rays. He is, however, very tough in Yankee Stadium: 8-1 with a 2.46 ERA in his past 11 starts. And his previous meeting with Tampa Bay ended badly, giving up five runs over six innings in a 7-6 loss in the 2012 season opener April 6.

So this promises to be an interesting showdown – one that has an entirely different feel thanks to what transpired Wednesday night.

The top of the ninth inning rolled around with boisterous Yankee fans smelling victory. But Sean Rodriguez – who has been hitting the ball better lately (.304 average in the past seven games) – got things going with a lead-off single to left on Robertson’s first offering.

Manager Joe Maddon then sent Brandon Allen to the plate to pinch-hit in the ninth hole for catcher Chris Gimenez. Allen hadn’t been faring so well after his grand entrance two weeks ago with the team, smashing a two-run walk-off homer against the Angels in his first official at-bat as a Ray. In fact, he was in the midst of an 0-for-11 streak as a pinch hitter and spot starter.

The 6-2, 235-pound lefty hitter, however, also jumped on the first pitch he saw, rifling it into right field in front of Nick Swisher. In one of the keys to the inning, Rodriguez raced from first to third rather than playing it safe and stopping at second.

That forced a throw from Swisher that arrived late and a few feet off the bag. Third baseman Alex Rodriguez caught the ball and gunned it to second base, but Allen’s aggressive base-running allowed him to beat the throw by a hair.

In that respect, Maddon’s constant preaching of aggressive base-running paid huge dividends. Sean Rodriguez and Allen had run the Rays into second and third with none out and removed the possibility of a rally-killing double play.

When the inning’s third hitter, Ben Zobrist, drew a four-pitch walk to load the bases, the Rays finally seemed poised to break through. But Carlos Pena followed by taking a called third strike, suddenly raising the specter of another botched scoring opportunity. Bear in mind: the Rays were 0 for their previous 20 in capitalizing with runners in scoring position at that moment.

B.J. Upton took care of that by flying out just deep enough to right, allowing Rodriguez to tag and barely beat the throw home from Swisher to tie the score 1-1.

That set the stage for Joyce’s heroics, culminating with his 1-2 drive over the right-field wall and leaving him limping around the base paths with his seventh home run of the season.

All that remained was for Fernando Rodney to shut the door. He’d pitched a scoreless eighth in spite of yielding two singles, thanks to a sensational double play initiated by Will Rhymes to end the inning. And in the ninth, Rodney came back out to close the door, the only glitch a one-out single by Raul Ibanez.

“That was the best and worst feeling you could possibly have in the span of a minute,” a smiling Joyce said of his homer and ensuing pratfall. “I was pumped that I hit it and I knew I hit it pretty well. But I was on the ground when the ball was in the air. So it was kind of hard to see what it was doing.”

Meanwhile, Maddon missed the entire thing. “I watched the ball to see whether it was going over the wall or not,” he said. “So that was lost on me.”

But the significance of what happened certainly isn’t lost on anyone. With one swat, followed by a little stumble, the Rays have found their footing just in a nick of time.