ARLINGTON, Texas – It must be said, before anyone goes back to crowning the Tampa Bay Rays a viable threat to knock off the domineering New York Yankees and juggernaut Philadelphia Phillies, that they did this against Colby Lewis(notes) and Tommy Hunter(notes). Of course, when a team wins two consecutive games on the road to keep its season alive, it matters not whether the pitchers were Colby Cheese and Big Buck Hunter: It's an impressive feat.
And so the Rays flew home Sunday night with their chests puffed out and their biceps flexed, accomplishment coursing through them. Their 5-2 victory against Texas at Rangers Ballpark sent their American League Division Series to a do-or-die fifth game Tuesday at Tropicana Field, the place where they lost the series' first two contests as well as their mojo.
That they recaptured it in such fashion – with cowboy boot pressed firmly against throat – really is no surprise to anyone who follows Tampa Bay. For a team as wildly and abundantly talented as they are, the Rays go Houdini far too often, only to come back in a poof of smoke so big and blinding that it's a wonder they're capable of looking so brutal in the first place.
"Now they know they had a chance to put us away, and that's in their minds. We feel good about that."
Good vibes permeated the Rays' clubhouse following Game 4. General manager Andrew Friedman cased the room, giving handshakes to players. Others made sure to remind David Price(notes), the Game 5 starter against the indomitable Cliff Lee(notes), to wear blue, the team's lucky color. And gone was the malaise that pervaded the team following its first two games, when Lee and C.J. Wilson(notes) shut down the Rays.
The Rangers could have sent those same two to pitch Games 4 and 5, with Lee going on short rest. Instead, they went with Hunter, who slopped his way through four innings before yielding to a bullpen that let the game get out of hand on Evan Longoria's(notes) two-run home run.
It was one of three extra-base hits for Longoria. Carlos Pena added two more. B.J. Upton(notes) had another. The three-man wrecking crew that led the Rays to the 2008 World Series got the band back together, at least for one day. And it felt like one of those weird reunions, because Longoria is not nearly himself as he limps around with a jacked-up quad, and Pena couldn't even crack the starting lineup in Game 2 and hit seventh the next game, and Upton is a mess of strikeouts without the production to justify them.
So to see them concurrently go off couldn't help but evoke '08, when Tampa Bay was the giant-killing juggernaut, the domineering monster, the team to beat.
"If we've got all the cylinders firing, it's definitely going to help us," Rays reliever Grant Balfour(notes) said. "It was great to see guys come out swinging the bat like that late last night and again today. That was awesome. There was no time for anything else. The guys showed that, hey, the bats are there, and that they're resilient."
Particularly Longoria, who entered the game hitless in his previous 11 at-bats. Though not incapable of moving, he is more wax sculpture than athlete, his legs' motility akin to those of a sloth – maybe a dead one. His hips and arms, on the other hand, remain fluid enough to connect with a pitch, and he did so three times to great effect Sunday. The home run, in particular, was the Rays' apex. Without Longoria, they are naked. With him, they're emboldened.
"I kind of felt like Kirk Gibson going around the bases a little bit," Longoria said, and injured-hero comparison aside, Gibson's 1988 Dodgers won the World Series, something Longoria '08 Rays couldn't muster, not when he and Pena and Upton floundered.
Pena and Upton's struggles this season made the Rays' 96-66 record all the more impressive, and if they can join in a hit parade with Crawford and Ben Zobrist(notes) and John Jaso(notes) and whichever others mad scientist manager Joe Maddon plucks from his utility-player parade, suddenly the Rays aren't just a threat to Lee in Game 5. They're back to scaring all of baseball.
"They do like big games," Maddon said. "Both of them do, and when you talk to either B.J. or Carlos prior to a game like today, man, it is a very calm conversation. You can talk about anything you want, they are not out there, they are not too quick. They like these moments."
Pena, heading into free agency, tried to remain as Zen as possible during his 2010 disaster. His batting average remained below .200 on the season's final day, and his on-base and slugging percentages bottomed out, too. Pena said he kept imploring himself "to take that next step, even if I don't know where it may lead. It may be good."
All the Rays needed such faith. They were lost, with scant time and no GPS. On their bulletin board, Pena pointed to a motto: "We're in the now." It's standard athlete-cliché fodder, but it worked for them, because now they've got a Game 5 of the same sort they faced two years ago.
Tampa Bay had frittered away a 3-1 lead in the AL Championship Series against Boston, along with the momentum and energy and will and every other buzzword that hops to whichever team happens to be playing better. Then they won Game 7, and all was well.
As it is today. The Three Amigos returned, and the series is a series again, and the Yankees and Phillies better watch out. The Rays aren't dead. Not even close.