The Tampa Bay Rays have put themselves too far behind to win on too many nights this season. The comeback spirit has been limited in appearance and longevity.
It rose from the grave dramatically Friday night.
The Rays hosted the Cleveland Indians, needing to get back on track after the James Shields loss Thursday night. Scott Kazmir fired rockets right out of the gate off the bats, that is. Grady Sizemore hit the game’s first strike over the wall and gave Cleveland a 10 lead. Kazmir would be tagged for seven earned runs in just 3.1 innings. This jobber of a performance appeared to be enough to carry the Indians to victory.
But even down 70, the Rays stayed in the game.
A pair of defensive gems in the fourth inning limited the damage. Gabe Gross made a leaping catch at the wall to turn a Matt LaPorta basesclearing extrabase hit into a sacrifice fly. The very next batter singled to center field, at which point B.J. Upton fired a strike to the plate and nailed Mark DeRosa on a great block of the plate by Dioner Navarro. Though the call was borderline at best, the Rays needed it and took it. (Indians manager Eric Wedge did not, however, and was ejected.)
Tampa Bay threw together a string of hits in the bottom half and made it a 73 game. This was at least within striking distance. The highlights were an Upton steal of third base following a double and a series of singles from the middle of the lineup. Lance Cormier shut down Cleveland for 2.2 innings of scoreless, hitless relief. If not for him, the score would have likely been more like 123 and the Rays would have rolled up the sidewalk and shut it down. The sixth inning saw two more runs to inch closer at 75. Carl Crawford earned his 23rd stolen base in as many attempts, then scored on an Evan Longoria single. A shorthop throw on a double play attempt by Jamey Carroll scored Longoria and made it a tworun deficit.
Troy Percival pitched (in middle relief where he belongs) a perfect seventh inning. The Rays brought it to within one run in the bottom of that inning on a Jason Bartlett double, Navarro sacrifice bunt (which he has executed proficiently as of late) and a wild pitch. See, kids, runs can be manufactured too. Upton (11) and Crawford (24) executed a double steal, but Longoria struck out and Willy Aybar popped up the first pitch following an intentional walk to Carlos Pena. Bases left loaded once again; Rays very close, but still not there.
J.P. Howell rolled through the eighth inning (not before a disagreement with Victor Martinez), then Ben Zobrist led off for the Rays. Here he comes again when he needs to tie the game on one swing. He fouled off Rafael Betancourt’s first pitch about 300 feet down the right field line. Well, at least he knew how to time the fastball. He got another one, and you know the rest… Mr. Timing has done it again! The Rays come all the way back in a game presumably left for dead and force the tie. And I am now convinced that Ben Zobrist can hit a home run whenever he wants to. That man can play god with a bat.
ShinSoo Choo, who homered early in the game, led off the ninth inning with a single. Dan Wheeler came in and got himself two outs before walking Ryan Garko on four pitches, two of which could have been called strikes. Matt LaPorta could have welcomed himself to the Major Leagues with one swing, but a fly ball fell into Upton’s glove at the warning track. Game still tied 77.
Bottom of the ninth inning, the Indians had only one hit after the fourth inning, during which time the Rays had overcome the largest deficit ever to be erased in franchise history. B.J. Upton, who had suddenly started swinging the bat like he should (2for4 with some nice, long atbats) led off against Luis Vizcaino. Upton got to 31 before a solid swing produced a line drive down the left field line, but foul for strike two. He has had trouble with two strike counts and high fastballs this season. In fact, he has had trouble with almost everything. Not a single home run has he hit in over a month since returning to the lineup. Vizcaino gave him a high fastball, the bat connected… and you can cue a slow motion effect and John Williams’ “Chariots of Fire” because that ball is gone and the postseason Bossman Junior Upton is back! The Rays came back from seven runs down a few innings into the game and gave the home fans an epic win to cheer about. They beat the Indians 87 and made the top of every highlight show in America. Not to mention, they might have turned their season around.
I always like to compare this team with a 1992 Braves due to last year’s striking resemblance to the 1991 Braves. That Braves team was under .500 in last place in the final week of May, then rumbled back and ended up in the World Series. This team may once again be mimicking their path to glory. This was a key turning point that will not soon be forgotten.
All this on a day where the (modernday) Braves had a walk-off win of their own. And so did the Yankees. We can settle for two out of three. But the Rays had the single greatest walk-off victory of the entire season to this point. They were written off by everyone except themselves. Special thanks to the bullpen and the entire lineup, especially Upton and Zobrist. You earned this, now even Kazmir can celebrate tonight.
Until next time, go Rays.