|Carlos Pena hits a grand slam off CC Sabathia in his first at-bat back with the Rays. (US Presswire)|
TAMPA -- The penny-conscious Rays stretched their meager budget this winter for old friend Carlos Pena, who gives the highly successful, tiny-revenue team big punch they wouldn't ordinarily have at a semi-reasonable cost. His Rays teammates welcomed him back, too, but not just for the power; there's also the positivity Pena brings. The sheer exuberance on Pena's movie-star face is immeasurable and contagious even after the most mundane of victories. So when his return engagement started today with a grand slam against perennial Yankees All-Star CC Sabathia and ended with a game-winner off the wall against all-time great closer Mariano Rivera, well, the joy could be seen and felt from here to Hillsborough County.
Pena turned his career around the first time he was a Ray, and the encore has started in a fashion that's nearly unbelievable: the exacta of the slam off the left-handed Sabathia, who had never before allowed one to a left-handed batter, and the game winner off Rivera, who's blown games so infrequently you can almost recall each and every last one of them.
In a season opener that featured two of the game's best teams and organizations, the perennially scrappy Rays prevailed 7-6, courtesy of two big hits by their big winter purchase -- one in the first inning, the other in the last. Pena came for $7.25 million, which may sound like peanuts to the Yankees but is serious loot to Tampa Bay, which is barely hanging on. Rays owner Stu Sternberg talked before the game about how they are the one exception to the rule that "winning cures all ills." It hasn't for the annually contending Rays, who sold out in Game 1 and 2, but are bracing for a financial struggle in the final 79
Ultimately, they may not make it in Tampa. But the Rays are determined to have a blast while it lasts. They spent right to their $64-million budget this winter, a sport-high 52 percent increase over last year's total, so it's a good thing they had a couple dollars left for one added luxury.
"We have a very good script writer in this organization," joked Rays general manager Andrew Friedman, who along with their fantastic manager Joe Maddon, pulls together a collection of low-to-medium-paid players to challenge the Yankees nearly every year. Even if they don't beat the gorilla in the end, they almost always give the Yankees a game. Sometimes they have to fight back to do it, and they do, even if it's against the unbeatable Rivera, who failed to protect the slim 6-5 lead built early on 40-year-old Raul Ibanez's surprise three-run home run in the third.
The Rays do some remarkable things, but since they do them every year, folks have stopped being shocked. Pena is an Orlando resident but he returned to enjoy a group that overcomes its limitations, financial and otherwise.
"I love what this team stands for. I believe what they believe in," said Pena, explaining why he came back for less. "It just felt right."
This is to say nothing of the game-winner, a high drive well over a drawn-in outfield with one out and the bases loaded in the ninth inning. Ben Zobrist raced home with the winning run when he saw speedy Yankees left fielder Brett Gardner turn to race back for the ball, anxious was he to meet up with Pena for the patented celebratory confab. Zobrist said the joy on Pena's face is so great it fuels a celebration that's not to be believed. "It's always a party," with Pena, noted Zobrist, whose run-scoring triple scored Desmond Jennings with the tying run and put him 90 feet from victory with none out in the ninth.
Zobrist couldn't explain afterward how he's collected three extra-base hits (two doubles and a triple) in his three lifetime at-bats against the incomparable Rivera. But afterward, most of the talk centered around Pena, who performed not one but two rare feats. Both Pena and Maddon suggested they thought, given the choice, the game-winner off a Rivera cutter was more impressive than the slam on a CC fastball, even if it's thrown at 94 mph. Pena said the trouble with Rivera is that his pitches are "illusions" that never wind up where you think. In this case, it wound up in deep left field -- another surprise.Pena's slam shocked the Yankees for sure, coming as it did with the history of Pena's 35 mostly fruitless at-bats against Sabathia, including 19 strikeouts. Maddon said he wasn't surprised about Yankees manager Joe Girardi's call to intentionally walk Sean Rodriguez to get to Pena, noting Pena's 12 punchouts in his last 14 at-bats against Sabathia. Nonetheless, Pena was flabbergasted when he watched Girardi tell Sabathia to walk the solid-hitting Rodriguez to get to him.
"I was like, 'Whoa, they are walking Sean Rodriguez to get to me.' After you get past the initial shock, it's time to get to business and get my mind focused on what I was trying to do, which was get a good pitch to hit and put the barrel of the bat on the ball," Pena said.
For the Yankees, the shock came in seeing Pena do it not once, but twice. Rivera, the greatest closer ever, was just a bit up with his pitches. He especially lamented the 1-and-2 cutter to Jennings that was up and punched up the middle for a hit. "My fault," Mo said. The one to Pena, though, was down, not at all in Pena's wheelhouse. That's what made it so impressive. In the past, Maddon said, Pena would have tried to pull the ball. Instead, he hit the drive to left field that sent the Rays into delirium.
The sellout crowd loved it, but not more than the Rays, a joyous bunch. They might not have the overall talent to match the Yankees (Rivera is the highest paid reliever ever and Sabathia the highest paid pitcher). But their success is no fluke, either. They will not be out-thought. Maddon originally had Pena batting seventh in the lineup with Eliot Johnson following Rodriguez. But Maddon moved Pena up a spot to protect himself in the event of late-game matchups. Nobody matches up well against Rivera, especially left-handed hitters. But the move looks like genius now.
The Yankees had managed to wriggle out of jams in the fifth and eighth with a Ray on third base and nobody out in each of those innings, as Tampa twice tried to bunt and failed both times. Even with Zobrist at third and nobody out in the ninth, they had to think Rivera had a shot to do what Sabathia did in the fifth and David Robertson in the eighth. But Rivera is human; they always note that on the rare occasions when Rivera loses.
"We're pretty used to seeing him doing it. We've seen it over 600 times," Girardi said, referring to Rivera's record save total. "So when it doesn't happen, it's shocking."
But maybe not so much more shocking than what the Rays are able to do here on a shoestring. Their $64-million payroll may be up, but it's less than one-third of the Yankees' $200-million outlay of cash. But none of that seems to matter when it's the Rays, who do have that great script writer.