ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – As the hit that saved the Rays' season bolted toward the tank in right center field Monday night, a shriek came from the food room in the corner of the home team's clubhouse.
Rookie right fielder Wil Myers, sitting on the plush couch out in the main room after leaving Game 3 of the best-of-five American League Division Series with cramps, wondered what the ruckus could possibly be. Then the huge TV in front of him, on a slight delay, caught up to the ball on the way to the tank.
There was backup catcher Jose Lobaton on the screen and on the field, racing around the base paths with his arms and his fingers extended in a "V" for "Victory." His very first postseason hit was also the very first Rays hit ever to land in that tank. The Rays, on life support in Toronto and then in Arlington and then in Cleveland and now here, had beaten Boston 5-4 in the bottom of the ninth to avoid postseason elimination for the fourth time in eight days. It capped the biggest comeback in team playoff history, and now Tampa Bay will try to avoid elimination once again in Game 4 Tuesday.
There is a special kind of voodoo about this old building and a special kind of magic about this team. We learned that two years ago when the Rays came from down 7-0 in the last game of the season against the Yankees to clinch a playoff berth, and we learned it again Monday night, when Lobaton circled the bases thinking, "Thank god! Thank god!" They were down 3-0 to the dominant Red Sox and they came back to tie it. They gave away a 4-3 lead in the top of the ninth and Lobaton won it. The hero was a guy who came to St. Pete by way of Idaho Falls, Eugene and Lake Elsinore (among other outposts). That's just how the Rays roll.
The moment before the home run was just as eerie-cool as the moment of the home run. Lobaton's catching cohort, Jose Molina, was talking to shortstop Yunel Escobar about the Boston closer, Koji Uehara, and his split-finger fastball. Molina suggested to Escobar that Lobaton should take a risk and wait for that pitch, even though it would mean fastballs would leave him stuck.
At that same moment, Lobaton came to the exact same conclusion.
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"If he throws me two fastballs," Lobaton recalled thinking, "I'm gonna be out.
"If he throws me a split, I'm going to try to make a good cut."
So Lobaton sat on it, and saw it, and swung.
It was the first home run surrendered by Uehara since June 30.
The Rays have a tradition in which every time Lobaton hits a walkoff home run, he gets ice cream. He hit two during the regular season, and he says he got "20" treats after the second. So by the time he was done with his trot, pitching ace David Price was already out on the field with a chocolate ice cream snack and a caramel cone.
"If I keep hitting," he quipped, "I'm gonna get fat."Several moments later, he was standing in an empty clubhouse, wearing a Bob Marley t-shirt, and wondering why he didn't get 20 treats this time.
Manager Joe Maddon missed it, by the way. He was looking down at his lineup card when the game-winner was struck. He would compare the sound of the hit to his days as a little boy in Pennsylvania, hearing the knock of a Cardinals home run over the radio. Except it wasn't Stan Musial. It was Jose Lobaton.
"It's incredible what he's done," Maddon said. "What an interesting, wonderful game to stay solvent with."
Yes, the Rays are solvent, which is a lovely phrase describing a team that makes every dollar count. They are still solvent, with a chance to win again at home on Tuesday night and go back to Boston for a deciding Game 5. Realists will rightly point out that the Red Sox have been outstanding during this whole series, suffocating the Rays with strong pitching and gashing them with a combination of timely hitting and brainy base running. Realists know this. Even the Rays know this. "They have been outplaying us all year," Maddon admitted. "They were outplaying us again today."
Realism doesn't always work at the Trop, though. It hasn't for a while. It didn't on Monday.
"We're writing the story right now," said James Loney.
So far, the story involves four elimination wins, a shriek from the food room, a caramel ice cream cone, and a hero in a Bob Marley shirt.
It's a story about a team that lives on the edge of doom, and still emerges with something left in the tank.