ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – In the bottom of the eighth inning, Joe Maddon’s wife had an idea.
She grabbed a little bottle of heart chakra oil and poured it onto her wrist. She told the other Rays wives around her in the lower bowl of Tropicana Field to do the same.
“Put it on your wrist and rub it on your heart,” Jaye Maddon told her friends. “And your heart will open up.”
The score at the time: Yankees 7, Rays 0.
By this point, many fans had left. Out in the parking lot, as early as 9 p.m., a stream of people trudged from the Trop. “Rays suck!” yelled one young woman in shiny short shorts. Parking attendants hugged goodbye for the winter. Headlights flashed on. Cars filed out.
Inside, there was near silence. Janitors passed each other and shook their heads. A lady in an elevator said, “Well, it was a great run.”
On the radio, the home announcers had announced that the Red Sox had taken the lead in Baltimore. Season tickets for 2012 were pitched on the air. “The Rays have had a run of miracles,” one said, “but the miracles might be over.”
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The miracles were just beginning.
They started as little, tiny, seemingly meaningless miracles. Johnny Damon’s(notes) soft looper landed in the outfield. Ben Zobrist(notes), whose first-inning error started the parade of seven consecutive Yankees runs, doubled. Casey Kotchman(notes) was hit by a pitch.
Sam Fuld(notes) walked to force in a run. Then came a moment that likely will be forgotten but was key: Sean Rodriguez(notes) fell behind in the count and appeared helpless at the plate. But a pitch hit him, and it was 7-2.
There was a murmur in the crowd. It wasn’t quiet anymore.
Ah, but then came two outs in a row – Desmond Jennings(notes) struck out and B.J. Upton(notes) hit a sacrifice fly that made it 7-3. And with the Red Sox still comfortably ahead, well, this wasn’t quite seismic.
Then Longoria came to bat.
And he was thinking, “This could be my last at-bat of the season.”
But the screaming was just beginning.
Now the deficit was only a run – 7-6 – and the feeling in the Trop sped from dread past hope to a knowing. The Rays had only three outs to save their season, but there was a sense that something bigger was going on. The team down nine games at the start of the month suddenly was within a whisper. The team down seven runs in the eighth inning suddenly was within a swing.
It made such perfect sense, even though it made no sense at all.
The count went to 1-2. The Sox were still winning. This was it, folks.
Here’s the thing about Dan Johnson. No, he is not a good hitter – that’s clear. But in pressure situations, he sees more clearly – more slowly. He always has, as long as he’s played baseball. He never expects to re-enter the zone, but it never fails to happen. Never. And as he watched the first curveball cross the plate for a called strike, he saw the world sharpen yet again.
“I saw it the whole way,” he said after the game, eyes wide in surprise. “I saw it great. It was slow. Everything slowed down.”
So while the entire stadium gave up again, Johnson watched a changeup come at him in slow motion. He swung. And the ball rocketed toward the right field foul pole, 322 feet away.
“Stay fair!” he thought.
It did. Of course it did.
Tie score. The Rays had caught the Red Sox in the standings and caught the Yankees in Game 162.
“We got this!” Zobrist yelled in the dugout. “We gotta win this game!”
The game went to the 10th, the 11th, the 12th. The Red Sox game, delayed by rain, eked toward the bottom of the ninth.
It was close to midnight now. Of course it was.
Up in his box, Rays president Matt Silverman had the split screen going. He swiveled his head back and forth. There were two out in the bottom of the ninth in Baltimore as well. Then came an Orioles double. Then another double. Tie score. Then came a roar from the president’s box. And somehow that picked up energy all over the stadium. The Rays, for a moment, had no idea. They looked around.
Then someone shouted, “They lost it!”
Eight minutes elapsed. The cheers came in waves of revelation. Then Longoria, with one out and a 2-2 count, saw a four-seam fastball from Scott Proctor(notes), and he ripped a low line drive toward left.
Of course it was the only part of the ballpark where a shot like that could clear the fence. Of course the fence was just a little bit lower where Longoria hit it. Of course the fence was 315 feet away and Longoria hit it, well, 315 feet and one inch. Of course.
And the Rays fans, the much-maligned Rays fans, erupted. The players flooded the field. The players’ wives, smelling like essential oils, hugged and shrieked.
It was 12:05. The Rays were going to the playoffs.
In the bedlam of the clubhouse, with the champagne spraying all over, everyone fought for words.
“It was just meant to be,” said Zobrist.
“Beyond fiction,” said Maddon.
“I can’t believe we’re standing here, popping bottles,” said Johnson.
“I don’t think there is a specific explanation for it,” said Longoria.
“It really is insane,” said Silverman.
Asked to pinpoint the one signature moment of the entire night, the president paused.
“The entire evening,” he said, “was one great moment.”
But there was another moment left.
Out on the field, fans crowded over the Rays' dugout. They screamed and held up signs and hugged. Johnson came out and tipped his cap. Then Maddon came out. “JOE!!” everyone yelled. He waved.
Then he found Jaye. They hugged. They kissed. They smiled like silly kids. They started to tear up. She didn’t tell him about the oil. She just clutched him and listened as he said again and again: