ARLINGTON, Texas – Their world is strange and wonderful, a little too big in spots, a little lonely at times, but almost always worthwhile, so the Tampa Bay Rays keep showing up, playing ball, seeing what the day brings. They hardly ever do it easy, which is what brought them here, to the regular-season game after the final regular-season game, the notorious Game 163, where the winner would play another game just like it. And the loser wouldn't.
That's what sends the Rays to Cleveland to play the Indians on Wednesday night in the wild-card game, another in what the rest of the world calls sudden death, what the Rays in their strange and wonderful world might call sudden life. They beat the Texas Rangers 5-2 Monday night. It was clean and thorough. They stood behind Evan Longoria, their star who has a particular way about himself in regular-season finales, and David Price, who threw nine taut innings and then turned to Longoria and shouted, "That's what I'm talkin' about! That's what I'm talkin' about!" and Longoria really had no idea. But, being a good teammate, he shouted the same thing back, because Price had tears running down his face and that was no time to ask for an explanation.
In the hours before the game, the word on Price was that he was vulnerable here. Vulnerable against them. And, indeed, his ERA in eight career starts against the Rangers was nearly six, and at Rangers Ballpark was more than 10. When he awakened Monday morning about 10 hours after the Rays' flight from Toronto had arrived, however, Price was having good thoughts. For two hours he visualized a complete-game win in this ballpark against that team, and with every final pitch, for whatever reason, he'd turn and lock eyes with his third baseman.
"It was cool to think about it," Price said.
So when he had thrown 108 pitches through eight innings out in the real world, and it was time to finish what he'd started, and the wild-card game seemed so near, he almost revealed to Longoria the vision that had come to him before breakfast.
"I wanted to tell him," Price said.
But didn't. Ten more pitches got him, got them all, into the playoffs, such as they are now for non-division winners. And when his 118th pitch carried from Nelson Cruz's bat to shortstop Yunel Escobar's glove to James Loney's mitt, that's when Price began to scream and cry, and when the Rays dashed in to dance with him, and comfort him, and laugh at this crazy world.
"He told me he had a dream about it," Longoria said.
"Not a dream," Price explained.
Anyway, Longoria said, "In the dream, he looked right at me. And I looked at him. That's when the emotion started to bubble to the surface."
Price had fought the bad vibes, had overcome what he called "shaky" stuff early in the game, watched as his changeup came and went, worked inside with his two-seamer against right-handers, and let it all out in a deathly quiet ballpark. The Rangers had won their last seven games to get here. The Rays had won eight of 10.
"We just have to do it the hard way, typically," manager Joe Maddon said.
Maybe that's why it felt so good to Price at the end, and why he found Longoria, and why he pointed and reminded a confused Longoria, "That's what I'm talkin' about."
"I had no idea," Longoria said.
So he yelled back, "Yeah, that's what I'm talkin' about, too," the whole while thinking, "Whatever you're talkin' about, that's it."
Longoria had singled in the first inning, hit a two-run homer off Rangers starter Martin Perez in the third and doubled in the sixth. In final games of the season – his Game 162 home run against the New York Yankees in 2011 is Rays lore – Longoria has seven home runs. He is their best player, and keeps showing up at the end, and so it was some familiarity that Longoria scored two runs and drove in two more.
"I guess just trying to be a leader," he said. "Just trying to set that tone, set that example."
In his office, Maddon's T-shirt was drenched in some liquid refreshment or another. His black-framed glasses were splattered in more of the same. He smiled, gripped a green bottle in his left hand, and gestured with it when he said this start, this complete game, this dynamic three hours had in some ways "validated" Price's need for it. And you would have sensed that Maddon saw Longoria's game coming, because the season might die without it, and because this is what Longoria does.
"That's just who he is," he said.
Few ever really believe in them, not like they do the bigger, fancier, wealthier franchises. Few go see them play. And yet here they are, in their strange and wonderful world, led by this strange and wonderful man, who sees things in them.
The Tao of Joe is such that he will board his new 40-foot, diesel-fueled recreational vehicle when the season ends with his wife Jaye at his right, bulldog Winston at his feet and a fresh copy of "Old Man and the Sea" in the glove compartment. He'll point the whole attitude toward Key West. When a man first journeys to Key West, he theorized, he must bring along his love, his dog and some Hemingway.
You'd be inclined to call this 390-horsepowered beast – it came with four TVs, dishwasher and washer and dryer, among other road-busting amenities – the Maddon Cruiser, a knockoff of the more famous Madden Cruiser. That's too obvious for Joe. He'll call his The Cousin Eddie, after the heap in "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation."
After Key West, he's thinking about Hilton Head, S.C. ("I've never been there."), New Orleans ("Did you know they have an RV park in the French Quarter?"), and Marfa, Texas ("It's one of those can't-get-there-from-here places."), before white-line fevering all the way home to Long Beach, Calif.
Maybe it takes a month. Maybe two. Maybe he'll get there in time to turn around for spring training.
Said Joe with a smile, "I don't care. I. Don't. Care."
He's not leaving yet. Not quite.
What a world.