Grabbing undisputed possession of first place in the American League East, the Tampa Bay Rays rallied for an unlikely 3-2 victory against the Seattle Mariners in 12 innings Monday night on Elliot Johnson's first career walk-off hit.
Monday's turnout of 9,458 at Tropicana Field marked Tampa Bay's lowest home attendance since a crowd of 9,112 for a game against Baltimore on Sept. 4, 2007.
The score was 2-2 with one out in the bottom of the 12th when Ben Zobrist drew his third walk of the game. He moved to second on Carlos Pena's single and slid safely into home when Johnson, subbing for the injured Evan Longoria, lined an opposite-field single to left off Brandon League.
Johnson, who had failed in several clutch situations Monday, was batting .143 when he stepped in against League and drove in his first run of the season.
"That's just who we are,'' outfielder B.J. Upton said. "We didn't stop, we didn't quit. … Elliot kind of gets ambushed, coming into the game for Longo, and he ends up winning it. That's us.''
J. P. Howell, Tampa Bay's fifth pitcher of the game, tossed one scoreless inning to pick up the win in the Rays' first extra-inning game of the season.
Tampa Bay was down to its final out in the bottom of the 11th when Upton blooped a broken-bat single to right, scoring pinch-runner Jeff Keppinger to tie the score, 2-2. Keppinger was running for Luke Scott, who opened the inning by lining a double off League.
The Rays (15-8) broke a first-place tie with the Orioles, who dropped a 2-1 decision to the Yankees and fell to 14-9.
"I was just trying to hit the ball where someone wasn't playing one time,'' said Johnson, who entered the game 1-for-10 against right-handed pitchers this season. "I was just trying to put a nice easy swing on it, and luckily I didn't hit it too hard that (left fielder) Chone Figgins could get to it.''
The Rays threatened in the bottom of the 10th, but Johnson struck out with two outs and Zobrist on third base.
In the 11th, Jesus Montero muscled Wade Davis' low and outside pitch into the right-field stands for his fourth homer, putting Seattle ahead, 2-1.
After Rays reliever Jake McGee pitched a scoreless eighth inning, the Mariners threatened to take the lead in the ninth against Fernando Rodney. With one out, back-to-back singles by Kyle Seager and Miguel Olivo put runners on first and third.
Rodney pounced on a safety squeeze bunt by Michael Saunders and his underhand toss nailed pinch runner Munenori Kawasaki at the plate, with Olivo advancing to second. Former Rays catcher John Jaso lined out to center as a pinch hitter to end the inning.
Tampa Bay's Jeremy Hellickson yielded six hits and struck out seven in seven innings while throwing 97 pitches, 68 for strikes. He appeared to get stronger as the game progressed, retiring 10 straight batters at one point in lowering his season ERA to 2.51 through five starts.
Longoria was pulled from the game after sliding into second base awkwardly on a failed stolen base attempt in the third inning.
"He's a little bit sore behind the knee,'' Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "We're going to have to get it tested. We kept battling back and that's what I like about our guys — they never stop.''
In the fifth, Longoria's replacement came up with two out and runners on second and third. Johnson fanned when he fouled off a bunt attempt with two strikes, leaving the score tied, 1-1.
Hellickson and Felix Hernandez, a pair of young, hard-throwing right-handers, had outstanding stuff from the start. Hernandez allowed one run and five hits in eight innings, striking out nine. The 2010 AL Cy Young Award winner has now registered 17 no-decisions in his career while throwing at least seven innings and allowing one or fewer runs.