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Martin Fennelly Columns

Latest mystery guest adds his name to Rays lore

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Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 10:55 AM
ST. PETERSBURG -

This was nuts. He approached home plate on Monday afternoon at Tropicana Field in the bottom of the eighth of a 3-3 game. It was the Yankees, of course. There were two outs, a Rays runner on second, a New York pitcher staring in, a real crowd making real noise and a playoff race packing heat.

Chris Gimenez joked under his breath.

"This is, by far, the biggest at-bat of your life," he told himself. "You might as well do something with it, you know?"

So he did.

It wasn't artsy. On Labor Day, the game-winner labored. The ground ball, off the end of the bat, bleeding profusely, took its time finding the right-field rug. It seemed to take as long as recent call-up catcher Gimenez and his career took to arrive at this moment.

"I kept yelling 'Get through!' " Rays center fielder B.J. Upton said. "That ball took hours."

"I was running to first, praying to God," Gimenez said.

The ball finally eluded Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano's glove for an RBI single and a 4-3 Rays win, another day in the life of the ever-tightening AL East. The Rays, who love mystery guests in September, had a new Man from Nowhere.

Gimenez is 29. He has played much of his nine professional seasons in the minors, nearly 700 games, roughly five times more than he has played up top in stints for three different major-league teams. He re-joined the Rays the other day in Toronto as part of an expanded roster. He hasn't even unpacked.

That's never stopped a September Ray. In 2008, Dan Johnson basically hopped out of a cab in Boston to beat the Red Sox. And the Sox — and maybe the Yankees — recall 162.

This wasn't that. Dan the Man could have hit one out and circled the bases, twice, in the time it took for that Gimenez grounder to get through. But Gimenez's bat found a 3-1 cutter from Yankees reliever David Robertson, the ball found a hole and Ryan Roberts, who'd stolen second, scored.

"Thankfully, I squeezed it in there," Gimenez said.

It was the biggest moment of his baseball life. His wife, Kellie, and their 9-month-old son, Jace, were at the Trop. His hit sent loving seismic waves to family and friends, back home to Gilroy, Calif., to his parents, to his grandparents, both sets, including Julia Gimenez, who charts her grandson's games, majors or minors. This one was off the charts, Julia.

"All you can do is hope you'll get the chance," Gimenez said.

He hit a home run in his first game in the majors, back in 2009. There was nothing to it, right? Gimenez got his chances in Cleveland and Seattle, but didn't hit. He signed a minor league deal with the Rays and got his chance early this season, but didn't hit. He returned to Triple-A Durham.

Really, his most famous Rays moments until Monday were the three times he was called for catcher's interference, a club record. The major-league record for a season is four.

"That's not a record I really want to have," Gimenez said with a smile.

At Durham, there was bad luck, a trip to the DL — and nearly surgery. Gimenez was catching when a pitch hit the plate and nailed him under his chest protector, um, under any protector. As to where it hit, exactly, put it this way: When it was listed as a "strained groin" even his wife laughed. "Well, what could they say?" Gimenez said with another smile.

He hit .310 for Durham, .375 against lefties. He played anywhere they told him to play.

"It was great for me to go down. I got a chance to play ever day and kind of get myself back in a groove," he said.

He still wasn't sure he'd be a September call-up. And Monday he wasn't certain he'd get a chance to play hero. The right-handed Gimenez had an RBI off Yankees starter CC Sabathia in the second, but Sabathia was gone, replaced in the eighth by righty Robertson.

Rays manager Joe Maddon was gone, too, having been tossed a few minutes earlier for arguing an out call on Rich Thompson's steal attempt. Gimenez thought he might be lifted for a lefty pinch hitter, say, Carlos Peña . He looked at Rays bench coach Dave Martinez, now in charge.

"Am I good?" Gimenez asked.

"Yeah, you're good," Martinez said.

Later, Chris Gimenez was asked how he'd celebrate.

"We're going to go move into our apartment tonight," he said.

Welcome to the neighborhood, and September.

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