Rays clinch AL wild card with stunning rally
A startling comeback on the final day of the regular season carried the Tampa Bay Rays back to the playoffs.
Their chances of claiming the AL wild card in jeopardy, the Rays rallied Wednesday night from a late seven-run deficit to beat the New York Yankees 8-7 on Evan Longoria's 12th-inning homer.
Throughout an improbable run for a third postseason berth in four years, manager Joe Maddon and his players talked about the unwavering faith they had in themselves and the prospect of making up nine games on Boston in the wild card standings. They caught the Red Sox on Tuesday and remained tied heading into the regular season finale.
Trailing 7-0 in the eighth inning, though, Matt Joyce conceded some doubt crept into his mind.
''It's hard to say no. For a little bit there, there was,'' Joyce said. ''But at the same time, you still have to go out there. And we're still playing hard, we're still playing to win, and you never know what's going to happen in the game of baseball. ... What an unbelievable story this is. Unbelievable.''
Evan Longoria capped the comeback by hitting his second home run of the game, hooking a drive barely inside the left-field foul pole in the 12th inning.
Pinch-hitter Dan Johnson saved the Rays with a two-out, two-strike solo home run down the right field line in the ninth that made it 7-all.
''At no point was I thinking, 'Oh, man, I have to hit this ball over the fence.' It's just one of those things that it just happened. I was up there trying to get on base,'' Johnson said. ''It was actually a pretty good pitch. It's just, you know, the stars were aligned. I was able to get the barrel on it and keep it fair.''
Longoria connected shortly after midnight, four minutes after Boston blew a ninth-inning lead and lost at Baltimore 4-3. If the Red Sox had held on, a one-game tiebreaker would have been played at Tropicana Field on Thursday.
''It's a good feeling knowing that one put us into the playoffs and not into a playoff game,'' Longoria said. ''So I'm just thinking about, 'Wow, did this just really happen?' ... Man, when I saw it clear the fence it didn't seem real.''
The crowd of 29,518 at Tropicana Field was mostly silent as the Rays trailed 7-0 going into the eighth. But Longoria's three-run homer finished a six-run burst in the eighth and Johnson, hitting only .108, tied it with a shot off Cory Wade.
Longoria connected off Scott Proctor (0-3) to end it. Proctor was the Yankees' 11th pitcher of the game - they did not use all-time career saves leader Mariano Rivera.
''I was imploring for a touchdown and a two-point conversion at that point,'' Maddon said. ''Of course, I always think we have a shot. ... Because their bullpen was not going to be their normal bullpen, that permitted us to do that. If they have (Rafael) Soriano, (David) Robertson and Rivera available, that doesn't happen.''
The fans roared when the Red Sox loss was posted on the scorecard. Moments later, they erupted again when Longoria homered.
''It's a storybook finish,'' designated hitter Johnny Damon said. ''Definitely gratifying.''
The Rays will open the first round of the AL playoffs on Friday at Texas. They also met the Rangers in the ALDS a year ago, losing in five games.
''We really had everybody play their part and come through, so it's something special,'' Joyce said. ''We have a special group of guys. There's something magical about us, and it's fun to be a part of it.''
The Yankees pulled their regulars throughout the game and finished with a lineup that looked more like a Triple-A team.
''The emotion of the day was something you can't dream up when you look at the schedule,'' Yankees star Alex Rodriguez said. ''Longoria had a magical night. They're very dangerous because they have good pitching.''
Moments before Tampa Bay won, it looked as if Boston would instead be going to the playoffs.
The Orioles were down to their last strike in the ninth before scoring twice off Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon.
The Rays, meanwhile, escaped a first-and-third, no-out jam in the 12th. Longoria made the key play, fielding a grounder at third and making a snap tag to catch the runner diving back to the base.
''Weird. Just when you think you've see it all,'' Yankees captain Derek Jeter said. ''It's one of those days. You have a team down seven runs in the eighth and Boston winning. It was very bizarre.''
Mark Teixeira hit a grand slam off All-Star David Price and a solo homer as the Yankees built their big lead.
The crowd lingered in the stands after the game ended and celebrated with players, who returned from the clubhouse to spray fans behind the dugout and along the railings with champagne.
''That was one of the best days in baseball's history, probably,'' Teixeira said. ''I really can't believe it. I think the fans should be excited.''