|Evan Longoria (middle) and the Rays celebrate a much-needed win against the Yankees. (AP)|
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Look at this as Tampa Bay's charmed life, or Boston's cursed fate. Take your pick. Either way, what happened in the sixth inning on the penultimate evening of the regular season ... it just doesn't happen.
Trailing 3-2 and staring at more trouble in their latest must-win game, Rays manager Joe Maddon had a decision. Yankees were on second and third. Nobody was out. Everybody knew New York manager Joe Girardi was about to unleash his bullpen monsters. So what Maddon did was, he ordered Jorge Posada intentionally walked to load the bases for Russell Martin.
"I said, 'Let's load 'em up right here to get a triple play,'" Maddon quipped after a harrowing 5-3 win to set up one crazy season-ending Wednesday.
Ha, ha. Good one.
But here's the thing: Every joke the Rays tell these days is hilarious. Every girl they see is a knockout. Every meal they eat is as if prepared by Bobby Flay.
What Maddon was really thinking was something else.
"What I was hoping for was maybe a double play and maybe giving up only one run," Maddon said. "My God, how could you envision that?"
A triple play?
But here's another thing: While Maddon was his usual thoughtful and entertaining self in another happy postgame clubhouse, on the field, in the moment, third baseman Evan Longoria already was several steps ahead of everyone else.
After the walk to Posada loaded the bases, the infielders gathered on the mound for a quick strategy briefing. You know, just review the situation, outs, if the ball's hit here I'll do this, if it's hit there you'll do that. During that chat, Longoria told catcher Kelly Shoppach that if a ground ball was hit hard to third, he was going to step on the base and then come home.
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Then, as the meeting on the mound broke up and the infielders started to return to their positions, Longoria had another thought.
He called out to second baseman Ben Zobrist and told him, "If the ball comes hard to me, I'm going to step on the base and let's try and turn a triple play."
"That thought was in my head," Longoria said. "That this would be the play, if it was hit to me. It would be an instinct play. I'd try and let where the ball was hit dictate what I would do. I knew Martin was running. He doesn't run terribly for a catcher, but if there's anybody in that lineup we'd have a chance at on a triple play, it's him."
So the All-Star third baseman who cannot remember ever being involved in a triple play at any level of competition -- Little League, Pony League, high school, college, professional, heck, probably not even backyard Wiffle ball -- returned to his position.
And Martin scorched a ground ball that traveled, literally, within one step of the bag.
You could darn near hear Boston's screams of utter disbelief all the way from Baltimore ... and through the roof of Tropicana Field.
To Longoria and the Rays, it must have seemed like Christmas morning.
But as that baseball was blazing toward him, Longoria was thinking something else.
"I was thinking, 'Man, this is going to be a bad hop,'" Longoria said. "I was thinking it was going to short-hop me.
"I was thinking, 'Man, a lot of things could go wrong here.'"
If he was wearing a Red Sox uniform, maybe.
But in Rays threads? Are you kidding?
It took Tampa Bay 125 days this season to pull back into a share of the American League wild-card slot on Monday.
So no way was this streaking, gutsy crew going to surrender that 24 hours later.
The triple play, Longoria to Zobrist to Sean Rodriguez at first, was gorgeous. Triple plays are rare enough -- the Rays hadn't turned one since 2006, and this was just the third in club history -- but to turn one in a game with such meaning ... wow. Just, wow.
And now their epic battle with Boston charges into the final day of the season, all knotted up, with sobering stakes and rapid rewards. A loss could mean sudden death, season over. A win could mean instant wild-card qualification ... or, worst-case, a one-game playoff Thursday here in Tampa Bay.
The Rays will start David Price on Wednesday night, and he is expected to face the Yankees' 'A' lineup. But there is a huge unknown here: Girardi, looking to rest his starters for two days before Game 1 of the playoffs on Friday, does not expect to name a starting pitcher for Wednesday night until sometime Wednesday afternoon.
Bottom line is, the Yankees almost certainly will send out a parade of pitchers who spent the summer at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
What will that mean? How will that play out? Well, the Rays and their manager are just loose enough and just quirky enough that, if there's any team in the game that can simply roll with the unknown and succeed, it's these guys.
Maddon actually said after the game that, at this time of year, he doesn't want a whole lot of information.
"I'm big on minimal information at this time of year," he said.
"I really believe you can overcrowd a mind," he said. "Everybody knows by now how to swing a bat, catch a ground ball, throw to the right base. I believe in preparation, but not over-preparation.
"Do less. Trust your instincts."
Just as Longoria would say 40 minutes later, that in anticipating the triple play, he knew it was going to be "an instinct play."
There is a reason why these Rays are scaring the life out of the Red Sox with one game to go. They are well-managed, well-schooled and incredibly prepared for this moment.
"I think it absolutely turned everything around," Joyce, the hitting hero, said of the triple play.
Just don't tell Longoria that the triple play was tailor made.
"If it was tailor made, the ball would have bounced up to me waist high," he said.
He was kidding, I think. Given the Rays' sky-high expectations these days, it was kind of hard to tell.