Longoria, Rays finish a wild-card comeback
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - As he rounded the bases, the ball just clearing the short fence in left field, all Evan Longoria could think was, “Wow, this is really happening.’’ He could barely process what had just taken place, the stunning events at Tropicana Field, all of which unbelievably led to this moment - to his 12th-inning home run, to the Rays’ 8-7 win over the Yankees, to a spot in the postseason.
“Man, when I saw it clear the fence, it didn’t seem real,’’ said Longoria, drenched in beer and champagne.
He should be forgiven for his disbelief. It was, after all, an ending that not only happened in a matter of minutes, but an ending unthinkable at the start of the month, when the Rays were down nine games to the Red Sox in the American League wild-card race.
“It goes beyond earthly measures,’’ Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “You can’t write that. No one would believe that. No one would believe how that all happened tonight. We were in such a bad place there. We’re in such a good place [now].’’
When Longoria stepped to the plate in the 12th inning, the score 7-7, he knew the Orioles had just tied the Red Sox in the ninth inning at Baltimore. The crowd of 29,518 at the Trop had just exploded, celebrating in the stands. And then it happened again, Longoria needing to step out of the box to collect himself.
Baltimore had just beaten the Red Sox. It was 11:57 p.m. The Rays - and Longoria - needed just eight minutes to take advantage.
“This is meant for some kind of book, whether it’s a fairy tale or something,’’ Longoria said. “Being able to get to a game where we had a chance to play a playoff game, 163 or get in, I mean, if you could have drawn it up any better, it would have been completely fake.’’
The Rays erased a nine-game deficit in the wild-card standings since Sept. 4, the most games overcome in the final month of the season to get into the playoffs in baseball history. They also erased a seven-run deficit last night setting up a Division Series meeting with the Rangers, which opens at Texas tomorrow.
It left the Rays celebrating, breathless and shocked, not fully able to digest what just happened.
“It was just meant to be,’’ Ben Zobrist said. “It’s unbelievable. I can’t describe it. It was just elation. We were just going crazy on the bench. When we found out Boston lost, we were like, we’ve got this. We’ve got to win this game right here. And next thing you know - God bless that little, short wall in left field.’’
And Dan Johnson, too.
Johnson, best known for hitting a September home run in 2008 off Jonathan Papelbon that helped send the Rays on their way to the World Series, was down to his final strike with two outs in the ninth, maybe the final strike of Tampa Bay’s season. The Rays were down a run, in danger of losing and having to watch the scoreboard to see if their season would be extended.
He hit one out, his first home run in the major leagues since April 27, becoming again the most unlikely of heroes. Though at least one person believed in his powers, Longoria having said to B.J. Upton that it was going to be “a rerun of 2008.’’
All that seemed impossible just hours earlier, as Mark Teixeira hit a grand slam and added a solo home run as the Yankees took a 7-0 lead on Andruw Jones’s homer in the fifth. The Rays didn’t get their second hit of the game until the sixth inning.
“At that point, you’re kind of just looking at the scoreboard, rooting for Baltimore,’’ Longoria said.
They had seemed dead, their destiny perhaps dried up in Game No. 162, the magic coming to an end. And then the eighth inning happened. And then the ninth inning happened.
The Rays scored six runs in the eighth, starting by loading the bases with no outs. One run came home on a walk, another on a hit by pitch, another on a sacrifice fly. Momentum seemed to be shifting.
Longoria stepped to the plate, two men on, two men out. Home run. The three-run shot brought the Rays to within 7-6, gave them hope, left them with the possibility of more baseball.
It was a game that, to start the day, seemed like a gimme for Tampa Bay. The Yankees started 6-foot-8-inch rookie Dellin Betances, and followed with pitchers with far more time in Triple A than in the majors. But the Rays went down, early, and looked as if they wouldn’t recover.
They did, a fact many of them still had difficulty believing in the raucous postgame clubhouse, a place of celebration and surprise in equal measure.
“I know it’s big, but I’m not there yet,’’ Maddon said, on realizing the significance of last night’s win. “I haven’t wrapped my mind around it. We’ve been too busy trying to do this. I haven’t grasped it all yet. I will at some point. I’m aware, I’m totally aware of the circumstances and the place in baseball history. But for right now, I’m not there yet.’’