ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – At first he didn't think he could catch up to the ball. Then he took a step, and another, and a couple more, and then, he thought, well, maybe. Maybe I can do it.
At first they didn't think they could catch up to Boston. Then they won a game, and then another, and then a couple more, and then, they thought, well, maybe. Maybe we can do it.
The play of the game, the play of the month, and the play of a career all served as the perfect metaphor Monday night for the Tampa Bay Rays' improbable run from nine games back in early September to tied for the American League wild-card lead in late September. In the top of the fifth inning, with the Rays leading the New York Yankees 4-2, Derek Jeter(notes) led off and blasted a changeup toward the gap in left-center field. Desmond Jennings(notes), the Rays' left fielder and former football wide receiver, gave chase.
"First couple steps," Jennings said, "I didn't think I would get to it. The closer it got, the more I believed."
Jennings left the ground, reached out, and "squeezed as tight as I could." The ball emerged from his glove and pitcher James Shields(notes), watching intently from the mound, thought he dropped it. But Jennings lifted up his glove, the ball peeking out like a sno-cone, and Tropicana Field erupted. Heck, Shields himself erupted, clapping his glove in awe.
"One of the best catches I've ever seen," Shields said. "I think that was a game-changing catch."
A circus catch under the Big Trop.
Jeter was the top man in the Yankees' order. The Rays were only up two runs. Things could easily have spiraled with the heart of the lineup coming up. Instead, Jennings made the grab and Shields pretty much lived up to his name after that. The Yankees never threatened in what ended as a 5-2 win that vaulted Tampa Bay into a tie for the final American League playoff spot. At 7:10 p.m., the Rays were one game back of the Red Sox. At 9:30 pm, the home crowd screamed "WHOA!" when the scoreboard showed Baltimore up 6-2 on the Sox. And at 10:30, David Price(notes) started the cheers in the Rays clubhouse when the Orioles' win went final. The Rays had come all the way back.
After Jennings made the catch in the fifth, Jeter jogged slowly back to the dugout and turned and looked hard at the man who'd robbed him.
If this keeps up, the Sox are going to be looking at the Rays with the same stunned glare.
Appropriately enough, the Rays started their chase Sept. 9 with a 7-2 win over the Red Sox. And as in the case of Jennings' catch, the belief wasn't there at first.
But like Jennings, the team believed more as it got closer and their target remained in sight.
"It's been palpable," said manager Joe Maddon. "You could feel it. We built upon that win."
The momentum built underneath the team this month like so much power in Jennings' churning legs. Soon it took on a life of its own. Soon it felt unstoppable.
Monday night, after finally catching the Red Sox for at least one day, the Rays momentarily looked back at the ground they'd covered.
"If you watch the Rays," Maddon said, "whether here or from a distance, you gotta appreciate what we went through."
The Rays certainly appreciated what Jennings went through.
"Probably the biggest play of his career," Longoria said.
So how far did Jennings have to go?
"A solid 40 yards," Maddon said.
"Seemed like he was running forever," Longoria said.
Put another way, exactly nine games.
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