The offense, what little of it there was Thursday night, disappeared after the fifth inning. For those familiar with the script used by the Tampa Bay Rays earlier this season, that was a bad sign.
But these are better days for the Rays, days when they believe they will win, and they did.
Evan Longoria snapped a tie with a home run in the ninth inning, and Fernando Rodney shut the door on another team as Tampa Bay beat the Chicago White Sox, 3-2, at U.S. Cellular Field.
"All year that’s the kind of game that’s put us behind the eight ball a little bit when we don’t win it," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "The offense disappears and the pitching stays in there, but eventually something negative were to happen later in the game. We turned it around (Thursday night). The home run turned it around."
It was a season-high eighth straight win for the Rays, who had a very good day when it came to the playoff picture.
Oakland lost in Texas and Anaheim lost to Seattle, meaning the Rays tied the Angels for third place in the Wild Card standings and moved to within two games of the A’s for the final Wild Card spot.
Also, with Baltimore off, the win moved the Rays to within three games of the Wild Card-leading Orioles.
So, with six games remaining in the regular season, the Rays control their postseason destiny. If they win out, they won’t need help from the other teams to, at the very least, force a tie-breaking playoff game with another Wild Card contender.
“It’s not ours to lose,” Longoria said. “It’s ours to win. We’re behind, but we’re close enough.”
The game had a playoff feel – a crisp autumn evening and two teams battling for a postseason berth.
Rays starter James Shields wasn’t his sharpest. He had trouble controlling his two-seam fastball. He walked four and hit two batters, one of which came with the bases-loaded and forced in a run.
But the defense turned a pair of double plays behind him, and Shields was able to limit the damage.
“I battled out there,” Shields said. “Our bullpen did a phenomenal job of coming in, and obviously Longoria’s hit was amazing.”
Carlos Peña drove in another run, this time with a sacrifice fly that scored Ben Zobrist in the fourth inning to give the Rays a 1-0 lead.
The White Sox tied it in the bottom of the inning when Shields hit a batter with the bases-loaded, but Luke Scott put his team back in front with a long home run to right field. The blast, measured at 413 feet, was Scott’s first home run since Sept. 5. He now has six RBI in his last nine games.
That was also the Rays last hit until Longoria’s home run.
In the meantime, the White Sox tied it at 2-2 in their half of the inning when Shields helped himself out of a bases-loaded, no-out jam by getting Paul Konerko to ground into a double play.
Jake McGee and Joel Peralta did their usual job out of the bullpen.
Longoria made everything work with his 14th home run of the season.
Rodney allowed a single in the ninth but finished the job for his 46th save to set the franchise’s record for saves in a season.
Longoria said he agreed with what Maddon, that if played earlier in the season, the Rays lose that game.
“We’ve been lacking that big hit at times throughout the course of the year and we’ve talked about that time and time again, so to get one (Thursday) was big,” Longoria said. “We’re riding the momentum right now. We’re doing a good job of keeping the streak alive and taking it one game at a time right now.”
Which is how Maddon wants his team to respond to the playoff chase.
He talks about the players wearing blinders when it comes to looking at the standings and running the table the way Minnesota Fats would a pool table.
Good pitching and great defense are two of the three keys to this run of wins.
“And that fortuitous hit, that clutch whatever you want to call hit has to show up for us to get back there,” Maddon said.
It did Thursday, thanks to Longoria.
“These are the kind of things that when we’re going well we do,” Maddon said. “Of course, Longo always seems to be involved in the positive drama that occurred.”