Originally posted on Fox Sports Florida  |  Last updated 10/4/12
ST. PETERSBURG -- It was a script that ended with a heartbreaking twist just short of the postseason. But there were more than a few stirring curtain calls Wednesday night for the Tampa Bay Rays as they left the 2012 stage with a 4-1 win over the playoff-bound Baltimore Orioles. "It was a very dramatic game tonight, how everything unfolded," said manager Joe Maddon, marveling at what had transpired through another memorable Rays regular-season finale. Who could have imagined that Evan Longoria -- whose two landmark home runs last year in Game 162 propelled the Rays into the playoffs -- would bash three homers in this season's 162nd contest? And then there was B.J. Upton, likely playing his final game as a Ray after 10 years in the organization, singling in the bottom of the eighth. That allowed Maddon to pull him for a pinch-runner and give him the spotlight. And the small but spirited Tropicana Field crowd of 17,909 -- no doubt including many fans who have criticized Upton over the years -- gave him a standing ovation, bringing him to tears as he doffed his helmet and stepped into the dugout. Then, in the ninth inning, the Orioles got to reliever Joel Peralta just enough -- with a pair of hits and a run -- that Maddon made a move he hadn't wanted to: summon Fernando Rodney from the bullpen with two outs and his all-time ERA record on the line against one of the great home-run hitters of all-time, Jim Thome. This was suddenly something of a Ted Williams moment -- recalling the the last day of the 1941 season when the Splendid Splinter played a final double-header that would have jeopardized his .400 batting average. Williams wound up going 6-for-8 and hitting .406. And though this certainly wasn't as monumental, Rodney still stood at an historic crossroads as he stared down at Thome -- baseball's seventh-leading home run king with 612 career blasts. The man who boasted a club-record 47 saves stood to lose his newly earned ERA mark to Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley if, say, Thome jacked one into the right-field seats. But Rodney faced the fire -- and extinguished it by coaxing a weak fly ball to left field on a 1-1 count. Sam Fuld, who had made several of his trademark sprinting catches earlier in the evening, circled under it for the final out. With that, Rodney further lowered his jaw-dropping ERA to 0.60, officially surpassing Eckersley's mark (based on 50 or more innings) of 0.61 set with Oakland in 1990 -- and enhancing his club saves mark with a 48th for good measure. In that same moment, Rays players and staff spilled onto the field -- forming a long line of heart-felt hugs, high fives and smiles that lasted several minutes. They had accomplished a smaller yet still significant goal they set after being eliminated from playoff contention Monday night when the A's defeated the Texas Rangers: by nailing down their 12th victory in the last 14 games of the season, they'd managed to secure their 90th win of the season. They'd done it for a third straight season, joining the Yankees and Rangers as the only other clubs to achieve that feat, and for the fourth time in the last five years, something only the Yankees and Phillies have accomplished. For the record, the Rays bowed out at 90-72, with their fifth straight winning season. And despite their torrid finish, they gained only three games in the Wild Card race in that span. That only underscores to Maddon how high the bar needs to be set -- likely to 95 wins -- to reach the post-season. "Sometimes you're not good enough -- we are good enough this year, we just did not win enough games," he said. "It's unfortunate. But nevertheless, I'm really proud of the way we handled these last 14 games -- winning 12 out of the last 14 games is pretty impressive. Of course, again, it's going to be tough to go home regarding playing the game of baseball. You look in the other dugout, and even though we've beaten them tonight, you know Baltimore is moving along. "But I give them all the credit in the world. Also, what Oakland did for the last three days (beating Texas in three straight to win the AL West division) is spectacular, too. They deserve to be there. We did not deserve to be there this year. But it really should serve as motivation and incentive for next year." In a way, so should the fireworks show put on my Longoria. It served as a distinct reminder of just how much the Rays missed him -- and what they might have accomplished -- if he hadn't torn his hamstring on April 30 sliding into second base and missing the next 85 games of the season. And it gives the team a renewed sense of the possibilities for next year with a healthy Longoria in the lineup. His three-homers Wednesday created quite a game 162 legacy: five homers in seven plate appearances over the past two season finales. And he also became the first Rays player to hit three homers on two occasions. Still, Longoria's 15th, 16th and 17th blasts -- helping him finish with .289 batting average -- didn't put him a festive mood by any means. "It's a little bit disappointing to be going home and packing up," Longoria said. "Obviously, Joe's said it and everyone is saying it. We are playing our best baseball right now. To have to pack up and go home is a little bit disappointing. That being said, we have nothing to be disappointed about. We had 90 wins and played tremendous baseball down the stretch. We made some great performances, both individually and as a team. So it was a fun year overall." As a group, the performance of the pitching staff was incomparable, leading the majors in ERA (3.19) and opponent's average (.228) and the AL in strikeouts (1,383) -- joining only the 1999 Red Sox as the only other team to lead the AL in all three categories. That prowess on display Wednesday night with a strong outing by Jeremy Hellickson (5.1 innings and one hit) to improve to 10-11, followed by shut-down middle relief work by Jake McGee and Wade Davis (no hits in 2.2 innings combined). But on a larger scale, there were two dominant arms this season. David Price's 20-5 record that puts him as perhaps the front-runner in the AL Cy Young Award voting. And then there was Rodney, whose spectacular season has thrust him into Cy Young consideration himself. Maddon had decided not to use Rodney unless the course of the game dictated it. Not even the crowd's booming chants of "RODNEY!! RODNEY!!" in the ninth -- after the Orioles scored their lone run with an Adam Jones sacrifice fly off Peralta -- was going to change his thinking. As a precaution, he did have Rodney warming up if the inning took a turn for the worse. And then it did. With two outs, and trailing 4-1 now, Baltimore catcher Matt Wieters grounded a single to right field -- with lefty slugger Thome coming to the plate with the potential to make it a one-run game. "I'm not hear to appease the crowd," he said. "I mean this guy was on the verge -- right there with one of the more significant achievements the history of baseball. And I was not going to jeopardize it just because people are yelling. "We played it straight. And that's the way it needed to be played. And by playing it straight, everything worked out right." Rodney was pleased to get the chance: "They told me to get ready if somebody got on base. When the runner scored, I was ready to go. And then the fans started yelling, Rodney! Rodney!' I'm ready to compete. I like to compete." The fans let their voices be heard for Upton as well. Though he has often been the target of criticism over the years, the crowd was keenly aware that they were probably Upton play for the last time as Ray before jumping into the free-agent market. His contributions this season likely won even his harshest past critics over: a career-high 28 homers, 19 of them since Aug. 11. And as he stepped to the plate in the bottom of the eighth, fans responded with a rousing standing ovation. Upton responded with his own dramatic flourish, a single to left. Maddon didn't miss the golden opportunity to send in Rich Thompson to pinch run and let Upton soak up the cheers. He couldn't help but tear up as he approached and entered the dugout, and the emotion remained in his eyes and voice through his post-game interviews. "Yeah, man," he said quietly. "This is all I know. The possibility that I might not be back to the team I've always been on, a lot of guys don't get to do that. I've had that opportunity and have been around great people, people who care and people who care about one another." Maddon has always cared and was glad Upton could take his bow. "I know B.J. was choked up by the moment -- deservedly so," he said. "It worked out well. All the drama that was presented in tonight's game -- right on cue, right on cue, right on cue with those incredible three home runs; two outs, base hit and Rodney's in the game; we win 4-1 and get your 90th win. So all the different dramatic components of the night came tonight together like they did last year. "The only unfortunate component is that we're not going to the playoffs."
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