Rays' Wild ride stops by Mo's Cathedral farewell
Postseason-hopeful Tampa Bay should have hands full at Yankee Stadium
ST. PETERSBURG -- There's nothing the Tampa Bay Rays would like better than to spoil Mariano Rivera's long and final farewell at Yankee Stadium this week, but this is far down their list of priorities.
The Rays, on a rampage of sorts, open a three-game series against the Yankees on Tuesday night with securing a trip to the postseason by nailing down a Wild Card berth their mission.
The way they're playing, the world's greatest reliever won't even enter their minds. Eliminating the Yankees from a trip to the postseason is more realistic.
The Rays aren't doing it the easy way, but they're getting it done with a vibe in the dugout and clubhouse manager Joe Maddon hasn't seen all season.
James Loney, allegedly getting the day off, ended his R & R when Maddon summoned him to lead off the ninth inning on Monday. He blasted a walk-off home run to right field, igniting a stunning 5-4 victory over Baltimore and the most boisterous Tropicana Field celebration the Rays have staged all season.
The buildup to Monday's dramatic moment started in the wee hours of Saturday morning when the Rays ended an 18-inning marathon with a 5-4 conquest of Baltimore -- 6 hours, 54 minutes of tense baseball.
That propelled them to wins on Saturday afternoon and Sunday. They completed the sweep Monday and jetted off to New York, oozing with confidence and the top spot in the American League's Wild Card battle.
"When you get to these moments and to playoff time and your guys are in to it, you can feel the difference," said a giddy Maddon after the game. "It's an intangible thing, a feeling. It's hard to describe because it's not a solid; it's just there."
The skipper says "at any point in the season I don't think we've had this kind of vibe, expecting something good to happen and a positive outlook."
Then, sounding like a college professor describing a philosophy, the always deep-thinking Maddon said: "You take it to another level mentally. This is not a physical thing. The mind's got to work first. If the mind is functioning properly and you're breathing well, you've got a chance to do these [great] things."
With center fielder Desmond Jennings unavailable because of a hamstring problem, Maddon concocted a makeshift lineup that included the versatile Ben Zobrist in left field.
That was a stroke of genius.
Zobrist, arguably the Most Valuable Player in this talented juggernaut, made two outstanding throws that cut down runners during crucial moments late in the game. He threw out pinch-runner Alexi Casilla at the plate in the seventh inning and in the eighth cut down a daring Matt Wieters who was trying to stretch a double into a triple.
Maddon: "I want to say this -- Ben Zobrist's play in left field today won tonight's game. Zo's defense won today's game. Period!"
Zobrist put it this way: "It was definitely one of those games where tension was high late in the game. I think all game long our energy was up as a team. I think everybody stayed with it and was pretty focused, even when we got down. ... We feel like we're going to win games like that. This was definitely a huge, huge series for us. We've got six games to go, and they're just as big."
Baltimore manager Buck Showalter tipped his cap.
"We started off real good on this road trip, then ran into some problems," Showalter said. "Most of that's got to do with Tampa; they played really well."
While the Rays are at Yankee Stadium, their fellow AL Wild Card hopefuls have a seemingly smoother road ahead.
The Indians face the last-place Chicago White Sox Tuesday and Wednesday, then finish the season with four games against the 90-loss Twins. Cleveland was off Monday, so Tampa Bay strengthened their lead in the race to one game.
The Rangers, who've struggled lately, sat 1 1/2 games back, but had a great chance to trim their deficit to one game with a win on Monday in Houston, where they'll face the last-place Astros through Wednesday.
Until the Rays go to Toronto this weekend to end the season, they will have had a stretch of 11 games against teams in contention for a Wild Card.
Nobody would blame the Rays if they were a little bitter.
"I don't even think about it," said Maddon. "It's just the way things work. I know we have some tough teams to beat. That's it. Early in the season everybody was critical of us because we were playing an easy schedule. I really challenge anybody to say the American League East schedule is easy at the end of the year."
And then there's the energy they'll face at Yankee Stadium as Rivera ends his Hall of Fame career there before the Yankees hit the road.
Matt Moore, an All-Star this season, faces the Yankees' Hiroki Kuroda in the first game on Tuesday night.
When Moore arrived in the AL's clubhouse at Citi Field in July, he looked around and spotted the Yankees' celebrated Rivera.
"I told him I felt very honored to be in the same locker room with him," Moore said Monday. "He's so special, so professional. This last homestand for him and the Yankees is very big. For me, it's been very special to play against him."
Moore, 15-4 with a 3.34 ERA, has two remaining starts -- against the Yankees and the final game of the season on Sunday against the Blue Jays.
"I'd like to finish off with two solid starts," he said, adding that if Game 162 becomes a must-win for the Rays in their quest for the postseason "it's going to be the biggest game of my life."
Would Maddon like to ruin these final moments at Yankee Stadium for Rivera?
"I swear it hasn't entered my mind; I haven't even thought about it," said Maddon. "It's about winning as many games as we can. We try to take and understand what it's going to take to get there [postseason]. Going into the series it [thinking about Rivera] could hurt you if you focus on it."
For the Rays, forget about the certain-to-be Hall of Famer.
It's about the present and that is their determination to play baseball in October.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.