Rays continue to show comeback spirit

Published Apr. 11, 2012 7:06 p.m. EDT

In the big inning, it’s starting to look as if God created the Rays.

True to form, they saved their best for last Wednesday on a chilly Detroit afternoon in which nothing had gone right.

For eight innings against one of the best pitchers in baseball, Tigers ace Justin Verlander, the Kings of the Comeback looked utterly helpless.

They didn’t get their first hit off the 2011 AL Cy Young Award winner until one out in the fifth, when Ben Zobrist lined a single to right. Through eight, Verlander was in complete command, hurling only 81 pitches and cruising with a two-run lead that looked insurmountable inside Comerica Park.

Heck, things looked bad even before the game even began. While throwing in the bullpen, Rays stellar starter Jeremy Hellickson suffered a potentially serious injury when he was struck in the head by a batting-practice home run ball while throwing in the bullpen, and he taken to the hospital for observation. Other than a bump, it turns out the 2011 AL Rookie of the Year is just fine.

And so are the Rays, who weathered a bump of their own and pulled off a 4-2 victory two games into a challenging 10-game road trip. In the end, it was their own ace, James Shields, who survived some uneven early innings to come away with his first win of the year – while Verlander, despite his brilliance most of the way, took the loss.

Talk about a reversal of fortune. But that seems to be a distinct pattern for the Rays. The same magic that marked their record-setting September playoff comeback last year – and then spilled into Opening Day last week at the Trop – materialized once again.

Somehow, they wound up walking off with a 4-1 record and a decent chance to take the three-game series from the potent Tigers on Thursday at 1:05 p.m. when Jeff Niemann goes up against newcomer Drew Smyly, making his big league debut.

“Our guys typically play nine innings hard,” said delighted Rays manager Joe Maddon in the wake of the improbable win.

They certainly have made a habit of it. Consider this trend from last season: As a whole, MLB teams won 14 percent of their games when trailing at the start of the seventh inning, prevailed 9.9 percent of the time when losing at the start of the eighth and pulled it out just 4.9 percent when behind at the beginning of the ninth.

The Rays, by contrast, won 18.2 percent of the time when trailing at the start of the seventh, 11.9 percent of the time at the start of the eighth and 9.9 percent at the start of the ninth.

Want more evidence? Last year, the MLB average for starting the ninth inning and coming back to end the inning either tied or ahead was 6.7 percent. The Rays came back to tie or go ahead at nearly a 10 percent rate.

Now, they’re picking up where they left off. After letting a tightly contested game slip away Tuesday in a 5-2 loss, Tampa Bay appeared to be careening toward a second straight setback against a tough Detroit team. But in the top of the ninth, Maddon sent in Jeff Keppinger to pinch hit for Sean Rodriguez, and the new Tampa Bay second baseman responded by grounding a single to center.

When shortstop Reid Brignac followed with a strikeout in the ninth spot of the order, Tiger fans in the crowd of 28,180 no doubt breathed easy, expecting to see Verlander close it out and lift Detroit to an unbeaten mark of 5-0.

Not so fast. Leadoff man Desmond Jennings lashed a single down the right-field line, moving Keppinger to third. And up stepped Carlos Pena, whose hot bat helped the Rays sweep the Yankees to start the season the past weekend. Pena worked a patient at-bat against Verlander, whose pinpoint command now seemed to be vanishing the harder he threw. On a 3-2 count, he let a wild 100 mph ball four skip past catcher Alex Avila, allowing Keppinger race home for his team’s first run.

With runners at first and second, third baseman Evan Longoria kept it going with a chopper into left, scoring Jennings and moving Pena to second. That was all Detroit manager Jim Leyland needed to see out of Verlander, sending in reliever Daniel Schlereth to get the Tigers out of the unexpected jam.

Schlereth, however, walked pinch-hitter Elliot Johnson to load the bases. Leyland then summoned shut-down closer Jose Valverde, who converted all 49 of his save opportunities last year.

But Valverde had no better success against the next hitter, Zobrist, than iconic Yankees closer Mariano Rivera had on Opening Day against Pena. And just as Pena delivered the game-winning hit in a ninth-inning comeback, Zobrist came through with a bouncer up the middle that scored both Pena and Longoria for a 4-2 lead. Maddon sent in Fernando Rodney in the bottom of the ninth, and the former Tiger retired the heart of the fearsome lineup – Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Jhonny Peralta – to earn his third save in five games this season.

“I thought their pitcher was very good – Verlander was on top of his entire game today,” Maddon said. “To be able to go into that moment right there, being down like we were, (it was) not a good feeling at all.

“But, here comes Keppinger, great at-bat. Rolls it up the middle. I thought Reid worked a good at-bat – struck him out, but here comes Desmond. He hits about a 99 mph fastball and keeps it fair down the right-field line. And then here we go, Carlos spitting on pitches that were balls. And then we eventually get a chopper in the hole (from Longoria). The whole thing – it was just a great comeback win against a very good opponent, obviously.”

Verlander allowed four hits and four earned runs while walking two and striking out seven in 8 1/3 innings. Shields, meanwhile, had to battle in the early going. He allowed the lead-off batter to reach base in four of the first five innings (and in three of those innings, they reached on the first or second pitch). He balked in Detroit’s second run in the fifth inning, taking an illegal step toward the plate and, in a clear mix-up with Longoria, throwing awkwardly to the third baseman off the bag.

For the record, Longoria accepted blame for missing the signal, and Maddon chalked it up to April baseball. But ultimately there was no harm done. Following a rough, no-decision against the Yankees, he went eight innings and allowed six hits, two runs, one walk and struck out five.

“He was a little unsettled in the first inning and pitched a really great game after that,” Maddon said.

Added Shields: “Any time you face Verlander, it’s going to be a battle. I hung in there all game. I made a mistake there in the fifth inning, but the guys did a great job of coming back. … To come back in the ninth inning down 2-0, that’s pretty special.”  

Longoria agreed wholeheartedly.

“It’s one of those things, we’ve got to keep grinding until the last out,” he said. “Justin had it going the whole game. It’s just one of those things where you’ve got to look for an opportunity. Kep kept it going with a base hit up the middle and we just continued to have good at-bats and eventually pulled through.”

In the end, another big inning.

FoxSportsFlorida.com’s Padrick Brewer contributed to this report.