Another must-win win for Rays
Backup catcher Jose Lobaton's game-winning blast extends Tampa Bay's season
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Some home runs leave the winners with a feeling of exultation, and the occasional few are improbable enough to transcend garden-variety excitement and make a more lasting impression. Years later, you remember where you were, how you felt, even what you were saying to a seatmate when you watched the ball clear the fence.
Jose Lobaton's solo shot to end Tampa Bay's 5-4 victory over Boston on Monday wasn't history-making on the scale of what Kirk Gibson, Bill Mazeroski or Joe Carter achieved in the postseason, because it's early October and the Tampa Bay Rays still trail the Red Sox 2-1 in the best-of-five American League Division Series and are just one disappointing night away from packing it in for the season. Lobaton's home run trot merely gave the Rays a reprieve, which is a world removed from a parade.
But the 33,675 fans at Tropicana Field won't forget it anytime soon, and it's sure to be a Jumbotron staple in the Tampa-St. Pete market for years to come. The homer was dramatic and unexpected enough that the word "walk-off" doesn't seem to do it justice.
On one end of the confrontation: The man with the gaudiest stats of any closer in baseball in 2013. Koji Uehara finished the regular season with a 0.57 WHIP, 101 strikeouts and nine walks, and a batting average against of .130. His season included one streak of 30 1/3 consecutive scoreless innings, and a run of 37 straight batters retired in August and September. Uehara made 37 straight homer-free appearances to end the year, and hadn't yielded a long ball since Toronto's Jose Bautista took him deep on June 30.
On the other end: Lobaton, a Venezuela native who made positive strides offensively this season at age 28, but still carried a .228 career batting average into the playoffs. His teammates say he's an exceptionally hard worker with a great sense of humor, and Lobaton showed that playful side during his postgame media session, when he attributed his knack for producing big hits to his fondness for ice cream.
As Lobaton stepped to the plate in the bottom of the ninth inning against Uehara with the game tied 4-4, Tampa Bay's other catcher, Jose Molina, was sitting on the bench with shortstop Yunel Escobar, who shared his strategy for hitting against Boston's indomitable closer. Uehara throws his fastball 46 percent of the time, his splitter 48 percent of the time, and mixes in the occasional slider for effect. Escobar left no doubt about which pitch he'd be waiting on.
"[Uehara] throws splitty, splitty," Molina said, "and Yunel said, 'You should just sit on it.' We were saying it like two seconds before. Yuney said, 'You gotta sit on it,' and he did and hit it out."
Rays rookie outfielder Wil Myers was in the clubhouse recuperating from leg cramps that necessitated his departure from the game when Lobaton went deep. Myers was sitting on a couch and watching a television with a slight delay when he heard a cry from Tim Beckham, Kevin Kiermaier and some other young Tampa Bay players who had gathered to watch the TV in the team food room. Their screen was in sync with the action on the field, so they got a jump on the celebration.
"They came running out and I was wondering what happened," Myers said. "I couldn't believe it. It's crazy how something like that happens."
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Or is it, really? There's a placard in the Rays' clubhouse with one of Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon's pet sayings, "Attitude is a Decision," in English, Spanish, Japanese and Korean. Maybe the Rays have another game in them this season because they just decided they weren't ready to stop playing baseball.
It would have been easy for the Rays to believe that fate was aligned against them when they fell behind 3-0 against Boston in the fifth inning. The deficit came after they were outscored 19-6 in two games in Boston that were noteworthy for star lefties Matt Moore and David Price getting cuffed around, Myers emerging as a human piñata for Fenway fans after botching a routine fly ball in the series opener, and Price offending the sensibilities of some media members by suggesting that they're not athletically-gifted enough to critique a player of his achievements.
Price took to Twitter with the phrase "Save It Nerds," a three-word phrase that ranks up there with "That's a clown question, bro," in the pantheon of recent pop culture putdowns. Price felt bad enough to apologize on his Twitter account and to reporters in person before Game 3, so now he can get back to doing what he does best .
The Rays' first save of the evening came from third baseman Evan Longoria, a three-time All-Star who will be the franchise face until his nine-figure contract expires in 2022. He jumped on a Clay Buchholz changeup and sent it over the left-field fence to pull Tampa into a 3-3 tie in the bottom of the fifth. The timing was exquisite given that both Longoria and Tampa Bay's starting pitcher, Alex Cobb, celebrated birthdays Monday.
Lobaton, who made a base salary of $496,500 this season, celebrated becoming the first catcher to hit a walk-off homer in the postseason since Todd Pratt of the New York Mets did it against Arizona in the 1999 NLDS. He also bailed out Rays closer Fernando Rodney, who had blown a 4-3 lead in the top of the ninth.
"You just run the bases like a kid when you get a homer," Lobaton said. "And it's a different feeling. To hit a homer in that situation is something special. Something that you can't explain."
His teammates might have had more confidence in Lobaton than he had in himself.
"Numbers can be deceiving," said Rays first baseman James Loney, "I'm kind of old school. He's hit a lot of balls right at people this year. I've seen him work, and I know he's a good hitter. He was a good guy to have up there."
No matter what happens to the Rays the rest of the way, they have every reason to feel as if they've outlived their expiration date. They had to hold off Toronto 7-6 at the Rogers Centre in the regular-season finale to earn a 163rd regular-season game against Texas. Price's complete-game gem vaulted them into a wild-card game in Cleveland, where Cobb threw 6 2/3 shutout innings to beat the Indians. The Lobaton homer gave them four wins in elimination games in four cities in a span of a little more than a week.
Will Lobaton's shot ultimately be remembered in the way Dave Roberts' steal against Mariano Rivera and the Yankees was a turning point and a catalyst in Boston's 2004 title run, or amount to just a temporary blip in the Red Sox's march to their third World Championship in a decade? The answer could come Tuesday night when Jeremy Hellickson hooks up with Jake Peavy at the Trop. A Tampa Bay victory would send things back to Fenway for a climactic Game 5 on Thursday.
Pardon the Rays if they feel that something cosmic is unfolding that's beyond their control.
"I don't think a lot of other people believe in us, but we believe in us," Molina said. "That's the most important thing."
So when does it end? Either Tuesday night or sometime later this month. Take your pick.
"We're writing a story right now," Loney said. "And we're just going to keep writing it tomorrow."