Originally posted on Fox Sports Florida  |  Last updated 7/8/12
In the standings, it registered as just one game in the middle of a long and winding baseball season. But the win pulled out by the Tampa Bay Rays on the eve of the All-Star break meant far more than that. In fact, given how difficult life has been for them lately, you couldn't have scripted a more emotionally uplifting victory for the Rays Sunday afternoon in Cleveland. You couldn't have imagined a more unlikely hero to jump-start a rousing ninth-inning comeback -- or a more daunting reliever to victimize when the pressure was on and the odds long. You couldn't have seen a game decided by fewer inches -- just shy of the outstretched glove worn by diving Indians centerfielder Michael Brantley -- than the one played out on Progressive Field. Put it this way: If the Rays wind up weathering their onslaught of injuries, continue the kind of clutch hitting they displayed late Sunday and eventually reach the post-season, they'll likely look back on their three-run rally in the ninth and 7-6 nail-biter over Cleveland as a turning point. That's not to say that the road will be any easier than it's been thus far. The latest news on the potential return of star third baseman and offensive catalyst Evan Longoria isn't particularly encouraging -- club revealed Friday that he's not coming back any time soon from his hamstring tear. On top of that, slugger Matt Joyce suffered a setback in his rehab assignment for an oblique injury, leaving his timetable for rejoining the lineup hazy right now. But none of that seemed to matter Sunday, where the Rays basically played two games in finishing the first half at 45-41 and holding onto third place in the East. In the first contest, they were the team we've seen so often in recent months -- one that couldn't hit and had lost three of their last four, nine of their last 13 and 16 of their last 25 since that distant memory of last leading the AL East on June 11. Heading into the sixth inning, they trailed 5-0 and had mustered just five hits off starter Zach McAllister. But then came the second game. Four unearned runs crossed the plate for Tampa Bay in the top of the sixth, following a one-out Carlos Pena single, a muffed force-out attempt on a routine Ben Zobrist grounder, a two-run double with two outs by a revived designated hitter Luke Scott, a walk to Jeff Keppinger and another two-run double by Desmond Jennings. Yet for all the morale-boosting impact that rally had, it appeared to be going for naught when Shin-Soo Choo drilled a Joel Peralta offering over the center field wall with two outs in the bottom of the eighth. That gave the Indians a comfortable 6-4 lead with Chris Perez -- voted to the AL All-Star team with 24 saves in 25 chances -- taking the mound in the top of the ninth. That's when the Rays somehow tapped into the comeback spirit that fueled their improbable surge last September. After catcher Jose Lobaton began the inning by striking out, 5-foot-9, 155-pound second baseman Will Rhymes stepped to the plate. And the ninth man in the batting order proceeded to rip a 2-2 Perez fastball into the right field seats for just the second home run of his three-season career and first since 2010 with Detroit. Rhymes had nearly cleared the fence on Friday in Tampa Bay's 10-3 victory over the Indians, but the ball hit the top of the wall and resulted in a triple. Sunday he had hit the ball hard in three previous at-bats, but there was no doubt in this one. The blast instantly re-invigorated the Rays' bench. and leadoff hitter Elliot Johnson (yes, if you just awoke from a three-month slumber, it turns out Johnson can really hit) ripped the first pitch he saw straight up the middle for a single. How big was Rhymes' homer at that moment? "It was huge," Rays manager Joe Maddon told the media after the game. The dugout came back alive. It (a comeback) became more believable. That was big, but I'll tell you what, E.J. jumping on that fastball up the middle really made it much more believable." Now the pressure seemed to shift tangibly onto shoulders of Perez. He got a head of the next batter, Carlos Pena, 1-2, and on the next pitch the swift Johnson (15 steals) took off for second base. But he never had to worry about beating any tag because Pena whacked a sinking shot to left-center field. Johnson rounded second and was barreling toward third as Brantley, a standout defensive player, charged full-speed at the ball. At the last instant, it looked as if he might have a chance at making a sensational catch -- and an easy play to double-up Johnson back at first and end the game on the spot. The ball, however, bounced just shy of his glove and rolled past him all the way to the wall -- allowing Johnson to score the tying run at 6-6 and give Pena time to stretch his big hit into his first triple of the season. "You know what, I would have defended what E.J. did 100 percent (if he'd been doubled-up)," Maddon said. "He was on the move and from the dugout, I thought that it was going to fall. And I bet from his perspective, he thought it was going to fall also. So good play for us -- fortuitous. We've had some non-fortuitous stuff. During the course of this game, we hit a lot of balls that were outs. But I've always said that if you keep pressing, then baseball comes back to you and you get rewarded." And more rewards were awaiting as Ben Zobrist dug in. After getting ahead on Perez 2-0, he lined a hard shot inside the right-field line for a single -- remarkably putting the Rays ahead 7-6 in a game they seemed left for dead. Perez pulled himself together with strikeouts of B.J. Upton and Scott to end the inning and send the Indians up for one last chance of their own. It was a moment of perfect symmetry. They faced Tampa Bay's All-Star closer, Fernando Rodney, who had also saved 24 of 25 games. Rodney made it look easy with the first two batters he faced, retiring Jason Kipnis and Travis Hafner on ground-outs. But Brantley seemed determined to redeem himself for the catch he'd just missed making, swatting an 0-2 pitch for a single to center. And catcher Carlos Santana blooped a single just beyond the reach of shortstop Johnson, who'd shaded in on the play. Now it was Cleveland's turn to push the pressure back onto the Rays and Rodney. And the way this game had unfolded, it was only fitting that the next batter was 2011 Tampa Bay first baseman and Seminole native Casey Kotchman, who had gone 3-for-4 in the game with three RBI and a solo homer off starter James Shields. The crowd hardly had enough time to savor the payback possibilities -- Kotchman bounced the first pitch to Tampa Bay's new power source, Rhymes, who field the ball and stepped on second base for the game-ending force. "Our secret weapon got us going with the homer to right and then E.J.'s line drive, and he's going on the pitch (to Pena)," Maddon. "Carlos has probably hit two balls to that spot all season. Rhymes has not hit a home run since 1837 and Carlos has not hit a ball to that spot since he was 10. And we win the game. That's how it works sometimes." Sometimes it works that way for a guy like Rhymes, who had insisted to his teammates prior to Sunday that he used to have some pop -- and then proved it when the stakes were high. "Honestly, I thought I got the one (Friday) better than the one today," Rhyme said. "I don't do it that often so I don't really know how it feels, I guess." And sometimes it works out the way it has for the Rays' DH, who went from a ghastly 0-for-41and on the verge of a major-league record hitless streak Friday -- to Great Scott. He broke out of his slump with a homer on Friday, added another homer in a two-hit effort in Saturday's 7-3 loss and doubled twice on Sunday (5-for-14 for .357, with four extra base hits and six RBI). Even with his epic slump, Scott leads the Rays with 42 RBI. "His confidence is coming up, you saw him running well to second and now he's got to have a four-day break," Maddon said. "It starts going well, and now he gets to sit on it, which is better than sitting on what had been happening." And the same holds true for Maddon and his team. "It's much easier to sit and go to my favorite sports bar (in Long Beach, Calif.) and enjoy the All-Star Game watching David Price and Fernando Rodney pitch well," Maddon said. "It has a different feel to it, there's no question." Pulling off a split with Cleveland, including taking two of the last three, couldn't have been a nicer way to enter the break, according to Zobrist."It's a big relief right now," he said. "We were reeling a little bit as a team and that kind of win to finish off the first half is just a much better feeling." Maddon already has a message for his team when they return to action Friday with a 10-game home stand against Boston, Cleveland and Seattle. "We need to understand that certain people aren't here and while they're not here, you don't wait for somebody to walk in the door," he said. "You keep playing and you believe that you can do it, even without those pieces. We have to get back to believing that. And if we can, then we'll avoid this rollercoaster-esque method that we've been going through over the last whatever games. "We're better than that. I don't care how many guys are hurt. We can beat anybody, any day, anywhere, at anytime. I believe that, regardless of people being injured or not." If there was meaning in what the Rays accomplished Sunday, that was it. And their challenge now is to keep reminding themselves of that in the second half.
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