Originally posted on Fox Sports Florida  |  Last updated 5/23/12
ST. PETERSBURG The Tampa Bay Rays will travel to Boston Thursday night sporting specially designed bow ties officially dubbed "The Ken RosenthalNerd Road Trip" in honor of the Fox Sports baseball analyst. But their latest theme trek should be a lot more fun thanks to the bow that B.J. Upton helped them tie around a crucial home series Wednesday afternoon against the Toronto Blue Jays. Upton's walk-off double in the bottom of the 11th inning gave the Rays a 5-4 victory over their tenacious AL East rival and sent them off in style to an equally important division weekend showdown in Beantown. The Rays' veteran centerfielder continues to play a starring role in Tampa Bay's patchwork production, which features 10 players on the disabled list. He collected three hits, including a pair of doubles, and is now hitting .448 (13-for-29 with two homers, four doubles, four RBI and five stolen bases) in his last seven games. "B.J. has been doing really well," said manager Joe Maddon. "That was a cutter in it might have hit him in the thigh had he had hit the ball. It was coming in on him hard. It's one thing to hit it hard but it's a different thing to hit it that hard and fair. He made it look easy, but that's not an easy thing to do right there." Added Upton, whose batting average stands at .288: "I think the biggest thing is staying inside the strike zone but still being aggressive. Right now, I guess I'm not missing the pitches." Meanwhile, the co-star on the game's winning play was 33-year-old longtime minor leaguer Rich Thompson, who had reached first after being hit by a pitch from reliever Darren Oliver. Acquired in a trade from Philadelphia last week, Thompson raced around the bases from first like a gazelle to score standing up. "I hear he could run, but obviously we haven't really gotten a chance to see him," Upton said. "I hit that ball like it was going to be second and third with one out. And as I'm touching second base, he was (rounding) third base. It kind of blew my mind there was no play at the plate." In keeping with their tradition, the Rays dugout cleared as players raced to the infield, jumping up and down in a jubilant mob that moved en masse into shallow centerfield. They had good reason to savor the moment. They'd just pulled out a victory that reversed a recent slide and raised their record to 27-18 closing to within one game of the first-place Baltimore Orioles, who lost 6-5 to Boston. The win felt especially good because it had nearly slipped away when Edwin Encarnacion hammered a two-run homer off reliever Joel Peralta to tie the score 4-4 in the bottom of the eighth. Up until then, it looked as if starter James Shields would earn the win with a standout performance that had kept the dangerous Jays at bay with a devastating change-up much of the afternoon. He lasted 7.1 innings, allowed seven hits while striking out 10 and walking only one. "I thought James Shields was really, really good," Maddon said. "He deserved a better fate than that. Great stuff. We made mistakes that probably cost him at least 10-15 pitches. I thought he was outstanding." After Peralta's miscue allowed Toronto back into the game, unofficial closer Fernando Rodney came in to work his usual late-game magic. He hurled scoreless frames in the ninth and 10th innings, lowering his spectacular ERA to 0.40 in the process. And Jake McGee shut the door on the Jays in the top of the 11th, striking out two of the three batters he faced to set the stage for Upton's heroics. "Fernando and Jake were fantastic," Maddon said. "I thought we pitched really, really well. I love the effort. My God, I love the effort. We made some mistakes regarding those extra pitches (for Shields) but the effort I can never complain about. Our guys are fabulous." The Rays nearly pulled the victory out in the bottom of the ninth when Carlos Pena walked with one out and moved to second on an Upton single to left. After Matt Joyce struck out, another Tampa Bay newcomer, Drew Sutton, stepped to the plate. Sutton had already found himself in the middle of the Rays' spotlight. In his first game Tuesday having been traded from Atlanta to Pittsburgh to Tampa Bay all in a matter of hours on Monday he went 2-for-4 with a double and an RBI in the Rays' 8-5 victory. On Wednesday, Maddon promoted the switch-hitting infielder-outfielder to cleanup a spot he had never batted in before. In his first at-bat, Sutton drilled a two-run double to give the Rays a 2-1 lead. And this time, he hit a hard grounder heading toward right field for a possible game-winner. But Toronto second baseman Omar Vizquel made a diving stop. He had no play at first against Sutton, but saw Pena trying to score from second base. He made a perfect throw to nail Pena by inches and force extra innings. But two innings later, there was no stopping Thompson. "That was good hustle there he was flying," Pena said. "That's a very short left and he still did. It was a very aggressive running of the bases. Of course, he's lightning fast and that will help." "That's one of the things I do and it's me in the game for a while now, and I'm just glad it paid off right there," he said. The Rays only managed two hits off Toronto starter Ricky Romero, but they drew seven walks and finished with 10 in all, the second-highest total in team history. And now they prepare to leave for Boston with some much-needed momentum, fueled by their fourth walk-off win of the season. After dropping four of their first since games in the homestand, they salvaged it at 4-4. In addition, they improved to 17-7 at Tropicana Field, the second-best home record in the majors behind the Los Angeles Dodgers (19-4). The Red Sox have been battling through adversity as well. They evened their record at 22-22 with their win over Baltimore, though still sit in last place in the AL East. Yet considering they had been 12-19, that's not so bad. Like the Rays, they've been finding ways to win while going through their own injury woes. The outfield has been decimated lately, with Cody Ross the latest addition to the disabled list after suffering a fractured left foot that will sideline four to six weeks. He's got plenty of company, taking his place alongside fellow injured outfielders Jacoby Ellsbury (shoulder), Carl Crawford (elbow), Ryan Kalish (shoulder), Darnell McDonald (oblique) and Jason Repko (shoulder). Just Maddon has been forced to make all manner of lineup adjustments, Boston skipper Bobby Valentine has had to resort to his own patch-work approach since losing Ross last Friday when he fouled a ball off his foot in Philadelphia. For the moment, Valentine has shifted All-Star first baseman Adrian Gonzales to right field. Taking over at first is third baseman Kevin Youkilis, who came off the DL when Ross went on it. By not moving Youkilis back to his usual spot at third, he's allowed impressive rookie Will Middlebrooks to stay put in the hot corner for now. Amid all the injury woes and general inconsistency, the 23-year-old has been a bright spot with a .286 batting average, five homers, 16 RBI and a .558 slugging percentage. Meanwhile, the Red Sox are filling their other holes in the outfield with Triple-A call-up Daniel Nava, recently added Marlon Byrd from the Cubs, just-acquired veteran Scott Posednik from the Phillies and strong-armed rookie Che-Hsuan Lin. The Rays have lost four of six to Boston this season, splitting the recent two-game home series after losing three of four at Fenway Park last month. They took 12 of 18 games against the Red Sox last year. After a day of rest Thursday, they'll face off against lefty Jon Lester (3-3, 3.95 ERA) Friday at 7:10 p.m., with recent Durham call-up Alex Cobb coming off a strong, seven-inning effort for the win over Atlanta. Cobb is in the rotation in place of Jeff Niemann, who suffered a broken leg when hit by a line drive in Toronto two weeks ago one of the many strokes of misfortune the Rays have suffered. But new players keep emerging and the Rays keep finding ways to win. "I believe we can hold serve throughout this whole thing," Maddon said. "I truly believe that different guys have to step up and do something good. And they've been (doing that) right down to Rich Thompson." Maddon is concerned about the Rays' uncharacteristically sloppy defense. They committed another error, raising their season total to 41, most in the American League (and one ahead of Baltimore). But overall, he couldn't be happier with how his team got back on course over the past few days. "Outstanding," he said.. "Especially after the first game loss to the Blue Jays, to be able to come back under the circumstances. With everything that's gone on I'm really proud of our guys."
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