ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Tampa Bay Rays fans filled up the unloved arena they call the Trop for only the fourth time all year. They were anticipating something special -- really, needing it.
Tampa Bay -- the small-market, smaller-revenue team that's put together a special six-year run of excellence on a shoestring budget -- has a way of delivering the improbable. And this certainly qualified.
Jose Lobaton, author of nine career home runs, hit a game-winning, walk-off homer off Boston's allegedly unhittable closer, Koji Uehara, who set a Red Sox record by retiring 37 consecutive batters only a few weeks earlier. Lobaton's drive into the right-center field tank (a rare tank job!), which provided the startling ending of the Rays' 5-4 victory in Game 3 that kept them alive in this ALDS, represented the first home run Uehara had allowed since June 30 -- yes, half a season.
"Look at the improbability of it," raved Rays manager Joe Maddon.
Lobaton played the hero at a time folks least expected it. It was an 0-1 split, Uehara's bread-and-butter pitch, and very few touch that offering, much less drill it into the right-center field stands. "I hit the ball hard and I said, 'Woah! I think I got it,'" said the charming Lobaton, who attributed his sudden power to all the ice cream he eats. He was kidding, we think.
As Lobaton strode to the plate, he told Rays coach Dave Martinez that Uehara had a "pretty good split." Which is like saying Ted Williams is a "pretty fair" hitter.
Then Lobaton, who did have two walk-off hits this year, suggested he wanted to try to hit a double, not just a single. The ball instead easily cleared the outfield wall, sending the rare sellout crowd of 33,675 into bedlam.
"Nobody's perfect," Red Sox Game 3 starter Clay Buchholz noted about Uehera's near-perfect run.
Lobaton's game-winning blast, with two out in the ninth, came four innings after something these fans had seen before: some Evan Longoria heroics.
Longoria, the Rays' one consistent source of offense, delivered at a time when it was absolutely necessary, with the Rays trailing 3-0 early. Longoria's fifth-inning homer set up a scintillating back-and-forth between two of the game's best managers before Lobaton stole the show with one swing.
"What an interesting wonderful game," Maddon said. "That ranks right up there. ... It's really an incredible day for the Rays."
Until Longoria batted in the fateful fifth, it looked like it might be the season finale for Tampa.
The Rays' solitary franchise position player has a penchant for these sort of heroics, so much so you wonder how the crafty righty Buchholz took such a chance as throw him something hittable -- anything hittable -- with two on, two out and the innings dwindling. But Buchholz did, finding too much of the plate with a change-up before craning his head to watch Longoria's drive fall into the first few rows in left field, just beyond the stretched glove of the Red Sox's athletic left fielder,
Longoria's three-run homer made it a whole new ballgame, and eventually a whole new series. The Rays' confident talk about getting this series back to Boston now is halfway to happening.
The choice to pitch to Longoria seemed like quite the gamble, seeing as how he is the singular force in Tampa's lineup. But Longoria had an explanation for that. "Clay has pitched me really tough. He's had my number," Longoria said.
Now the series numbers look a tiny bit better for the Rays.
The Red Sox still take a 2-1 lead in games into Tuesday night's Game 4, so the Rays will need at least two more miracles to steal a series they have no business stealing. And it feels that way, definitely.
"We're still up 2-1. We're still in the driver's seat," Red Sox outfielder Shane Victorino said.
Boston, the best team in the American League all year, started this series by administering two Fenway beatdowns, then took a 3-0 lead into the fifth inning, when Longoria helped his upstart Rays at live at least another day.
Longoria's birthday drive (he turned 28 on Monday) breathed life into a team that appeared to be gasping for air. Buchholz had stretched his scoreless streak against the Rays to 17 innings before that fateful fifth, when his arsenal of trickery stopped working for a brief stretch, or just long enough to make something of a series of this.
Buchholz gift-wrapped it in a sense because rookie Wil Myers, who seems to be hitting the wall, was on deck with one whole hit in the series, one extremely bad memory of a lost flyball and, as it turns out, a spent body. Myers later left the game with cramping in both legs, and IVs were reportedly being administered. (He will play Tuesday, they say.)
Earlier, the same could be said for the Rays, who trailed early, thanks to a Ben Zobrist error, an Alex Cobb wild pitch and quite possibly a missed call at third base, where Ellsbury appeared to have been tagged out. No matter, the Rays didn't quit. Which is one of the things they do best.
They pushed across the go-ahead run in the eighth inning on a walk, a bunt and two grounders, which is the way they do things around here. Pinch runner Sam Fuld, who embodies the Rays' stature and spirit, scored before the Red Sox tied it with a run off closer Fernando Rodney on Dustin Pedroia's RBI groundout to short.
Then the Rays gave all of their fans a nice present for turning out, with the unheralded Lobaton playing the final hero on a team that may seem overmatched on paper but most often isn't on the field.
Oh, Boston is still in superb position, holding the best record in the AL and having two games to win one, with veteran pitchers Jake Peavy and Jon Lester ready to go in Games 4 and 5. They still have the game's best offense, its best closer (except for Monday) and maybe its best mix, as well.
Tampa would seem to be in a tough spot, even if Maddon wants to say that the Red Sox "out-Fenwayed" them the first two games. The reality is, Boston has a lot going for it, from its relentless leadoff man in Ellsbury (8 for 14 in the series) to its spunky second baseman Pedroia to its ageless DH David Ortiz (on base four times in four plate appearances Monday).
"We understand we still still have our backs against the wall," Longoria said. "It seems like these moments have been fueling us."
The Rays have their motivation. And they have their Man, that being the birthday boy.
Tampa has Longoria -- it always has Longoria -- who now has nine postseason home runs in addition to a 28th birthday gift to himself. In the entire history of the postseason, the only player to previously homer on his birthday was Willie Mays Aikens in the 1980 World Series. This kid has a knack, of that there's no doubt.
And this time, he got help from an unlikely source.