ST. PETERSBURG It's only early September, but the simmering tension and deafening din inside Tropicana Field late Monday afternoon provided a playoff feel worthy of October.
You could point to any number of pivotal moments in the opener of a three-game series between the Tampa Bay Rays and New York Yankees a Labor Day clash that revived the emotion and excitement of their classic late-season showdown last year.
But no play stood out more than a eighth-inning squib single by backup catcher Chris Gimenez, called up from Triple-A Durham only two days ago. In the game of his career, Gimenez' second RBI hit of the day capped a dramatic sequence of events that helped the Rays beat the Yankees 4-3 decision and suddenly turned the AL East race into a three-team track meet with 27 games to play.
Tampa Bay pulled to within 2.5 games of the first-place Yankees with its third straight victory, while the Baltimore Orioles closed the gap to one behind New York by blanking Toronto 4-0. The Rays remain 1.5 games behind in the Wild Card race behind the Orioles, but can still catch New York and Baltimore for the division title down the stretch.
The latest victory sets up an equally important Trop meeting at 7:10 p.m. Tuesday. Alex Cobb (8-8, 4.39) takes the mound against New York's Freddy Garcia (7-5, 4.90) with momentum on the Rays' side, having gained eight games on the sputtering Yankees in the last month-and-a-half.
"I just love the way we played today," said manager Joe Maddon. "I thought we were just so up for that game from the first pitch. I was just really proud of our guys."
The ball club that only recently had lost 11 of 12 one-run decisions dating back to July 21 has now won its last two in white-knuckle fashion and this one couldn't have come at a better time
Starting pitcher James Shields certainly did his share to make the victory possible, holding the Yankees to five hits over eight innings, bowing out as the Rays came to bat in the bottom of the eighth with the score tied 3-3.
They had managed to get to New York's ace, CC Sabathia, throughout the afternoon, tagging him for eight hits in seven innings including B.J. Upton's 17th homerun of the season on a rising smash to left-center in the second inning. But then manager Joe Girardi sent his tough set-up man Dave Robertson a pitcher who had been 5-0 lifetime against Tampa Bay prior to suffering two losses this season.
Jeff Keppinger greeted him with a hard single to left and was promptly pulled for pinch-runner Rich Thompson, newly recalled from Durham. Thompson, even at 33, possesses excellent speed. And with new Rays right fielder Ben Francisco at the plate a day after leading a 9-4 win over Toronto with a homer and double Thompson took off for second.
In spite of a pitchout, he appeared on replays to have just beaten the throw by New York catcher Russell Martin. The play was close enough to cause Maddon to rush onto the field and argue vehemently with second-base umpire Bob Davidson. It appeared that Davidson was content to let Maddon vent, but the tirade continued until he tossed the Rays' skipper his third ejection this season and club-record 26th at the helm since 2006.
Rays fans in the boisterous holiday crowd of 28,585 there were plenty of Yankee supporters in the stands as well rose to their feet and cheered wildly as Maddon drew out his theatrics and eventually headed for the clubhouse. If his intent was to fire up his team and recharge the electric atmosphere inside the Trop, it worked.
After Francisco flew out to center, second baseman Ryan Roberts lashed a groundball single to left to keep the inning alive. Up came Gimenez, who played earlier in the season for the Rays before being optioned back to Durham in late May. With the count 2-1, Roberts took off for second running on his own without a signal and just beat the tag.
Now the Rays had the potential go-ahead run on second for a fourth-year player whose only career go-ahead hit had taken place with Cleveland in July 2009. Gimenez had singled in the second inning to give Tampa Bay a 1-0 lead. And with the pressure on, he did it again hitting a bouncer that just eluded the outstretched grasp of Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano.
The crowd roared as Roberts raced around third and scored easily to put the Rays ahead 4-3.
"That was probably the longest 90 feet I've ever run," said Gimenez. "Knowing that I might be here (at first) but he might not score. And then I saw it get through and I was like, thank God I needed that."
But the show was still far from over. In the top of the ninth, the Rays' not-so-secret weapon Fernando Rodney entered the game having just notched his 40th save Saturday in Toronto and lowered his spectacular ERA to 0.73.
But lest we forget, this is Tampa Bay-New York in a playoff hunt, virtually guaranteeing that more drama was in store.
Indeed it was. Rodney became by striking out cleanup hitter Alex Rodriguez, just back from the disabled list with a hand fracture. Eric Chavez, however, ripped a hard, low line drive toward third base. It was the kind of play that starting third baseman Evan Longoria would make routinely.
Longoria, though, had been pulled after seven innings by Maddon to rest his healing hamstring, following the long flight home Sunday night from Toronto followed by an early game. Elliot Johnson had moved from short to third in his place. In the top of the inning, Johnson mishandled a similar shot by Cano but recovered in time to make the put-out at first, thanks to a nice move by Jeff Keppinger off the bag.
Once again, Johnson couldn't corral the liner and this time he hurried the throw and hurled it wildly, allowing Chavez to reach first. Pinch-runner Eduardo Nunez proceeded to steal second base and moved to third on a grounder to Carlos Pena, who'd come in as a defensive replacement.
Girardi then sent in slugger Curtis Granderson, nursing a sore hamstring, to pinch hit for Martin. He got ahead in the count 2-0, but Rodney recovered with a change-up and 99-mph fastball for strikes. And with Rays fans on their feet screaming, Rodney fooled Granderson with another of his stunning change-ups to end the game tying Baltimore's Jim Johnson for the major-league lead with 41 saves.
"This is the start of September this is where we want to be," said Shields, who improved to 13-8 with a 3.88 ERA. "The start of spring training, we want to always be in the playoff hunt. And here we are again."
Shields only had one shaky inning, allowing three runs in the fourth on four hits. But he regained his composure and kept the Yankees at bay after that, continuing a remarkable second half of the season (5-1, 2.22 ERA). He was aided by some clutch defense along the way, including a pair of double-plays initiated by first-baseman Keppinger in the seventh and the eighth.
"I think he had really good stuff," said Maddon. "His fastball has really come up over the last several weeks. I just thought he had plenty left in the tank."
But it was Maddon who helped fuel emotions with his well-orchestrated argument in the eighth. Addressing the media after the game, he reversed course and offered what seemed to be an olive branch to Davidson.
"Retrospectively, I have heard that Bob was right," he said, turning to face a TV camera and smiling. " Bob, I'm telling you (that) you were right. I apologize.' I didn't say anything really bad. I really enjoy Bob. Bob is an old-school umpire. He and I have done this before. So Bob, you were right.' I want everybody to know that."
Maddon acknowledged that Davidson gave him considerable leeway. But he wanted to get ejected as another nail-biter for his team hung in the balance.
"At that point I did," he said. "It's at that point in the game where, gosh, we've lost so many close games, what is it going to take for us to have us win a close, one-run game? Then eventually we had the stolen base by Roberts and the big knock by Gimenez."
For Gimenez, who hit .310 in Durham, it was a day to remember. "I knew I had to go down to Triple-A and figure some stuff out," he said. "But I always felt that if I could get myself going in the right direction again, I could contribute. I got a chance to play every day and got myself back in a groove."
And paved the way for a September win that felt strangely like October.