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Coming into the evening the Red Sox were a mere one-half game behind in the AL East standings and a wave of momentum like a Nor'Easterner run rampant - ten straight wins at Fenway against the "other" fish from Florida, including a 7-0 record this season.
The Red Sox were down 3-2 in the bottom of the eighth inning when Jason Bay took Rays reliever Dan Wheeler deep to give the Sawx a one run lead heading into the ninth. The bullpen door opened and Terry Francona brought in his big, bad, Riverdancing closer to shut the door on the Rays and their AL East division lead.
Rays manager Joe Maddon countered with a left-jab... and knocked the big righty for a loop.
Earlier in the day, lefty 1B/OF/DH Dan Johnson was recalled from the heat of the pennant race at AAA Durham and jumped right into the thick of a slightly more important pennant race in the Bigs. Johnson yanked a 3-2 offering into a silenced, stunned crowd to tie the game at 4 runs apiece. It was Johnson's first career pinch hit in 16 ABs. Madden must've thought he was due.
After the crowd had their clam chowder holes zipped shut, Papelbon gave up doubles to Fernando Perez and Rays' All-Star catcher Dioner Navarro to give the Rays the 5-4 lead. Papelbon was shaken and clearly miffed and struggled with his control before finally getting out of the inning lucky to be down only one run.
Troy Percival shut down the Sox in in the ninth for his 28th save front of 37,573 gape-mawed witnesses.
These are the games of September that write the legends of baseball lore. A guy who hasn't been in the majors except for one plate appearance in April can change the entire race in one swing.
Now the Red Sox have to recover from a reeling loss. A loss at home. A loss that would have given them first place. A loss suffered by their supposed invincible closer, Jonathan Papelblown. A loss to the Division leading and sudden, die-hard rivals, Tampa Bay.
Just like the pundits have been saying all season long, this was "Tampa's Biggest Game of the Season" and they won it "The Rays Way": they scratched, they clawed, they never gave up and they did all the other clichés as well. This could have been a season changing game for both teams - a catapult for the Red Sox to charge into October and a ship sinking in Tampa, but if just for tonight, the biggest blows were withstood and Little Brother left the fray standing. The Underdog found Victory in the clutch of defeat once again.
It's not coincidence that the Rays lead the majors in come from behind victories after the 8th inning this season.
Contributions came from all angles. Great starting pitching, timely hitting, solid defense and depth in the bullpen. To consider that the Rays would have a starting outfield of Eric Hinske, Ben Zobrist and Gabe Gross in September and still be leading the AL East is astounding. Thanks to Matt Silverman, I am the biggest Rays believer and yet... this shocks even me!
Tomorrow the Rays and Red Sox wrap up their three game set at Fenway. Rays starter Andy Sonnanstine (a.k.a. Greg Maddux-lite) takes his 13-7 record to the bump and attempts to set a franchise record in wins by a starter. He will face World Class jerk/Red Sox starter Josh Beckett and his highly overpaid 12-9 record.
After the series wraps up, the Rays head to the Bronx to whoop on the Yankees while the Red Sox face the Blisteringly-hot Toronto Blue Jays before matching up again next week in St. Petersburg.
By the time the Sox and Rays rematch in Florida, Evan Longoria will be back and in the starting lineup as will B.J. Upton. It's even crazier when you think what this team has done despite also missing Carl Crawford for most of the second half of the season. Also consider there's a good chance that wunderkind lefty David Price could be done with his AAA playoffs and getting the callup to the big squad as well - although that seems to be a 50-50 proposition at worst considering the front office's willingness to not tinker with chemistry or to push Price too quickly. There's no doubt his arm is ready right now!
The Rays are 6-0 at home against the Red Sox and also boast MLB's best home record. By the time that series is over, the Rays could be looking at the objects that aren't anywhere near as close as they appear in the mirror... and perhaps shockingly - to most people, anyway - the Rays will be printing playoff tickets and hosting meaningful games in front of a national audience at their very under-rated and ignorantly disparaged home, Tropicana Field.
The Rays are certainly the 'Story of the Year', especially considering the way they've done it - with everyone expecting them to collapse, with injuries to Carl Crawford, Evan Longoria, Carlos Pena, Scott Kazmir and without a .300+ hitter, with a third baseman playing second base, without a 20-game winner, without a 40 HR or 100 RBI guy, one year removed from the worst bullpen in modern history and with perhaps the most under-the-radar feel good story of the year - the Return of Rocco Baldelli.
Meanwhile, the Defending Champs have a tough road ahead. First, they'll have to overcome tonight's groin crunching loss. Papelbon will have to regroup and not focus on how he blew the opportunity to slingshot his team into the postseason. The Sox will need to gather the remainder of their pride and face reality: They are a Wild Card team and won't want to meet up with this Rays squad in October.