Rays' ninth inning rally keeps hope alive
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The ball soared off B.J. Upton's bat in the bottom of the ninth inning late Thursday night, carrying with it a touch of the magic that has eluded the Tampa Bay Rays this season and keeping their long-shot playoff hopes alive just when the lights seemed to be flickering out.
All Upton needed was to loft the shot deep enough to score pinch-runner Elliot Johnson on a sacrifice fly for the winning run. But the ball just kept sailing – well over the head of Boston Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, playing shallow in hopes of preventing a score.
And then it disappeared over the wall – a walk-off, three-run blast – as the few remaining fans in a small Tropicana Field crowd of 12,963 roared in a dramatic scene reminiscent of the Rays' surge to the postseason last September.
"We've been missing a little bit of the magic this year and it doesn't get much more magical than that moment right there," said manager Joe Maddon. "I've been saying, man, if you believe you can do it, you can. If you believe you cannot, you cannot. So we've done it before. We just did it again tonight."
Rays players rushed onto the field waiting for Upton to circle the bases and mobbed him at home plate to celebrate an unlikely 7-4 victory over the Red Sox, fueled by a six-run outburst in the ninth after lackluster offensive night.
Upton delivered the crushing blow off reliever Vicente Padilla with his fourth career walk-off hit and his sixth homer in his last 11 games, matching his career high with 24 for the season.
"He fell behind 2-0, then I swung at a pitch that I didn't want to swing at and he left one where I could hit it," Upton said. "I didn't know it was (a home run). I just knew (Ellsbury) wasn't going to be able to catch it, so I just had to touch first base. When I looked up when I got to first base, it was over the wall."
With that, the Rays won their second straight game over Boston to finish the four-game series with a split. But more important, they averted what looked like a devastating loss courtesy of hard-throwing Red Sox righty Clay Buchholz, who out-dueled Tampa Bay ace David Price through seven innings.
Coming into the game 5 1/2 games behind in the wild card race, there was precious little margin of error if the Rays were to have any sliver of a hope of keeping their playoff dreams alive. And their win gave them just the lift they needed – both emotionally and in the standings, where they moved ahead of the Tigers by a half game in improving to 80-70.
Catching the Baltimore Orioles or the Oakland A's, the front-runners for the two wild card spots with records of 85-64, remains a steep mountain to climb. But the energizing victory sends the Rays into their weekend series at the Trop against the plummeting Toronto Blue Jays with spirits high.
After that, the Rays will hit the road for a return engagement with the struggling Red Sox back at Fenway Park Tuesday and Wednesday, followed by a four-game series against the AL West leading White Sox in Chicago. And they finish the season back home with a three-game set against the Orioles.
They'll need help from other teams – specifically anyone playing the Angels, Tigers, Orioles and A's – if that final AL East showdown is to have any meaning.
With the math so heavily against them, the Rays would do anything just to have a shot at another Game 162 – as they did last year in much landmark fashion by sweeping the Yankees in the final series at home and clinching a wild card spot on the final night.
But Thursday night kept the possibility, no matter how slim, alive – and that's what counted to Maddon and the Rays.
"That was huge," Price said. "That kept us alive right there, so it was good to see our offense bounce back in the ninth inning and put up six runs. That was a big win for us."
Until that rousing ninth, Price stood to take a loss – stalled two games away from becoming the first 20-game winner in franchise history. He had pitched well until the sixth, when Boston broke a 0-0 tie with three singles and a double, along with a walk and a pair of wild pitches. That produced a 2-0 Red Sox lead and snapped a scoreless streak of 29.1 consecutive scoreless innings by Price at the Trop.
Once again, lack of run support seemed destined to undercut another victory-worthy Price performance: 7.1 innings, with eight hits, three runs and seven strikeouts.
Consider this: He has had six starts of seven innings or more with three earned runs or fewer allowed – and wound up with a no-decision, second most in the majors. And in his last four starts at home, he has an ERA of 0.89 but has only gone 1-0 in that span – with the Rays providing only one run to help his cause in his last 23.1 innings at the Trop.
A loss might have done some damage to his Cy Young Award hopes, but at 18-5 with an ERA of 2.58 he remains a top contender – along with Tampa Bay reliever Fernando Rodney with his spectator 0.66 ERA and 43 saves.
Yet all that mattered to Price and anyone in the clubhouse Thursday night was the comeback that had made everything possible.
It didn't look good up to that point. The Rays were completely stymied by Buchholz, managing just four hits and no runs through seven innings – a complete reversal from their lively bats Wednesday night in a 13-3 win.
Price came on to pitch the eighth with Boston leading 2-0, but gave way to Wade Davis after allowing a one-out double to Ryan Lavarnway. Davis didn't help matters, however, by promptly yielding a triple to Mauro Gomez to make it a seemingly insurmountable 3-0.
In the bottom of the eighth, Tampa Bay got the run back on a leadoff double by Desmond Jennings, an Upton fly out that moved him to third and a sacrifice fly by Ben Zobrist. But fans began streaming for the exits in the top of the ninth when J.P. Howell was stung by a homer from weak-hitting Jose Iglesias (who had come into the game 2-for-20 but managed two hits off Price).
A Red Sox win – all but knocking the Rays out of the running – seemed imminent as the Rays went to bat in the bottom of the ninth, trailing 4-1. But Matt Joyce led off with a single up the middle on a 2-2 count off closer Andrew Bailey, and Jeff Keppinger followed by drilling a second to left.
Suddenly, there was a buzz in the Trop – and it continued as Luke Scott chopped a grounder to first that momentarily looked like a double-play ball. But Scott was retired while moving the runners up. The next batter, Carlos Pena, worked the count to 3-2 before lining a single to right to score Joyce and make it 4-2.
Maddon sent in speedy Rich Thompson to run for Pena and he promptly stole second. And pinch-hitter Stephen Vogt, hitless in 19 major league at-bats, drew a walk to load the bases – and then was replaced by pinch-runner Johnson.
Even with the sparse crowd, the electricity was mounting now. And that's when Jennings smacked the first pitch he saw off Bailey into center, scoring Keppinger and Thompson to tie the game 4-4.
The Trop was rocking as Padilla replaced Bailey to face Upton – and moments later, the Rays were swarming the field, savoring some magic they badly needed.
"It was just a victory for right now," Upton sad. "We still have some games left. If something like that happens at the end of the season, I'll call it magical. For right now, that's just a win. We have 12 games left and we're going to try to win as many of them as possible."