Extra-inning win can be Rays' seminal moment
Victory over A's on Thursday could prove to be momentum builder team seeks
ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rays have been searching for hits and runs, solid pitching, and victories. Manager Joe Maddon has been praying for a seminal moment.
They got both in the early evening hours of Thursday with an unlikely, but much-welcomed, 5-2 extra-inning win against Major League Baseball's best team, the Oakland Athletics.
The Rays have been dreadful of late. They took the Tropicana Field on Thursday having lost four straight games and 11 of their last 15.
The magical season many predicted had turned to rust. Even the most devout optimist had to admit chances of rebuilding 2014 and returning to the postseason would be a Herculean task.
Three hours before Thursday's game with a worried look on his face, Maddon said what the Rays needed was a seminal moment, some form of thunder and lightning to ignite momentum.
At first, it appeared the magnificent return of right-hander Alex Cobb from the disabled list was the moment. Over 6 2/3 innings and 96 pitches, he blanked the potent Athletics, who'd won five straight and 11 of their last 12 games, taking no prisoners.
And then the Rays scratched for a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the seventh. It wasn't exactly thunder and lightning, but taking that slim advantage into the ninth with three outs to go was just fine.
But struggling closer Grant Balfour coughed up the lead as the A's pulled even, sending the game to extras and making many of the 11,257 still in the house forget how important Cobb's first start since April 12 was.
There was doom and gloom, the atmosphere for most Rays games this month, in the 11th when the Athletics took a 2-1 lead against reliever Josh Lueke.
"Sometimes when you don't expect it, something big happens," Maddon said earlier.
"Confidence is a very fragile part of the human existence. When you have it, you can almost do anything. When you're lacking it a little bit, even the most mundane things became more difficult."
Evan Longoria, the Rays' best player and leader, had looked less than stellar in his first four at-bats Thursday, elevated to the No. 2 hole in the batting order because Maddon said that would take pressure off him.
The count was 1-2 on Longoria leading off the 11th inning when he rifled a single to left-center. Two fly balls by Matt Joyce and Wil Myers put the Rays in a two-out hole with the outcome seemingly inevitable.
James Loney singled to center, with Longoria stopping at second and on a 1-2 count Desmond Jennings singled up the middle. Longoria scored to tie the game and moments later Sean Rodriguez blasted a three-run homer and you might have thought the Rays had just won the World Series.
The entire team danced around home plate, celebrating their first walk-off success of this disappointing season. Oakland packed for a trip to Toronto.
A seminal moment?
"Yes," said Maddon. "We talked about that before the game and I kept thinking back to what I told you. We've had plenty of opportunities for that moment and I believe there's more of those forthcoming.
"It was great for our guys to do that; we needed some kind of a boost all night. We were foiled in our attempts, and you've got to give Oakland credit. They're playing at a very high level."
The obvious question is, will they be capable of building on this victory. Maddon thinks so.
Before the game, I asked him what it takes to lift a team up from an especially difficult period of poor play and losses.
That's when he threw seminal moment at me.
When he was a coach with the Angels in 2002 they were losing, appeared to lack energy -- "all the things people are saying about us," Maddon said. "We looked like we were dead in the water, but David Eckstein hit a grand slam against Toronto and from that moment on we turned it around. They started playing with renewed energy and a new belief. And it was the same group of players."
He said it was part of the Angels' resurgence that helped propel them to the World Series against San Francisco.
"You have to have a seminal moment that all of a sudden creates momentum going in the right direction," said Maddon. "That's what we've been looking for."
"We haven't made anything easy for ourselves of late … I think that win can hopefully propel us - being down late and able to respond the way we did, and finally get a big hit."
As the Rays prepare for the weekend invasion of the Boston Red Sox, they're still in the American League East's basement and, at 20-28, eight games under .500.
A year ago, on June 22, they were also in last place, but from that moment reeled off 22 wins in 27 games.
It was that kind of magic which carried them to the postseason for the fourth time in five years.
Even after Thursday's victory, the jury remains out on whether this team possesses that touch.
If nothing else, as Maddon says, it's something to build on. That's what seminal moments are for.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.