Having spent most of the season in fourth place in the American League East, the Tampa Bay Rays and their fans were hopeful that this current stretch of fourteen straight games versus below .500 competition would be the catalyst for a leap back up the standings. Most were hoping for at least 10 wins while others claimed that any less than 11 would be a let down.
Through the first nine games of this run, the Rays have lived up to those expectations, taking eight and losing just one game, last Wednesday in Houston. With two more against Minnesota and three with Houston, it was time to start getting a little greedy. The Rays have jumped into second place in the AL East and just three and a half back of division leading Red Sox. Suddenly, the Rays are the hottest team in baseball.
Wednesday evening, Jeremy Hellickson had the task of continuing the roll as he battled Kevin Correia and the hapless Minnesota Twins.
Jeremy Hellickson was dominant at times, striking out eight batters while scattering six hits over six innings. Hellboy flashed a nifty curve ball to complement is usual fastball command and devastating change up. Unfortunately, there were a couple of lapses in command that led to the Twins scoring three runs with the bottom of Minnesota's lineup doing most of the damage. With the Rays holding a 1-0 lead in the third inning, Hellickson was punished for leaving a fastball over the plate to Twins number nine hitter Pedro Florimon. I had never heard of Florimon before tonight's game but he made sure I knew how to spell his name for this recap as he launched a fastball into the right field stands for a go-ahead two run home run. The bottom half of the Twins order would trigger another rally in the 5th as Clete Thomas singled Aaron Hicks home with two outs with a soft liner that just eluded a leaping Yunel Escobar.
The 3-1 Twins lead would not hold for long though.
In the top of the sixth inning, James Loney singled to right field in front of Wil Myers, fresh off his day off from the Rays lineup, Tuesday. Myers hammered a ball to third base but Eduardo Escobar snagged the line drive and saved at least a double. Kelly Johnson, getting another start after his two-hit outing, Tuesday, was up next and he made sure that the only person who could catch his drive would be a fan as he blasted his thirteenth home run to tie the game at three all.
With Hellickson at 95 pitches after six innings, Maddon elected to turn to his "A" bullpen, running Jake McGee out for the start of the seventh of a now-tied game. McGee responded with a show of dominance, striking out the side on just 13 pitches.
The Rays threatened to take the lead in the bottom of the seventh when Desmond Jennings singled to open the frame. The Twins turned to left handed reliever Caleb Thielbar to handle Luke Scott, who grounded out softly while moving Jennings to second base. With one out now, Jennings flashed his speed by stealing third base and setting up the potential for the Rays to score on a flyball from All-Star Ben Zobrist. However, Thielbar struck out Zobrist and then intentionally walked Evan Longoria, opting to face James Loney instead. Loney entered the matchup hitting .358 against left-handers and Longoria is in the midst of a 5-for-42 slump, so the move seemed questionable at the time, however, Loney struck out swinging to end the threat.
For the game, the Rays were 1-9 with runners in scoring position and left 15 men on base. Both teams racked up the whiffs, Wednesday, as the Twins struck out 19 times while the Rays struck out 16. The 35 combined K's was the largest combined total for any game in Rays history. Every starter in the Twins line up with the exception of Mauer struck out at least once, and every player in the Rays lineup with the exception of Myers did the same.
Each team would go quietly in the eighth inning and Maddon turned to Fernando Rodney to preserve the tie in the ninth inning. There's often something quirky with closers working non-save situations and Rodney immediately showed signs of struggling, giving up a single to Joe Mauer on a liner that hit Rodney in the mitt and then another single from Justin Morneau to put two on with nobody out. Rodney gathered himself, striking out Ryan Doumit and then Wheres-OsWaldo Arcia with his familiar pattern of 99-mph heat and bugs-bunny change ups. An Aaron Hicks ground out ended the inning with no damage done. The Rays got a two-out, Luke Scott hit in the ninth but Zobrist struck out to send it to extra innings.
With one on and two out in the bottom of the tenth inning, Kelly Johnson made a bid for a walk off hit with a deep drive to center field. Johnson just missed his second home run of the night and was robbed of the walk off as Aaron Hicks tracked down the drive and made a spectacular leaping catch, crashing into the padding of the center field wall.
Sadly for Rays and Twins fans watching, the already lengthy contest came grinding to a halt after that, leaving Hicks' catch as the most interesting moment for some time. The action picked up again in the bottom of the 12th inning as Longoria singled with one out and then stole second with Loney at the plate. The swiped bag was Longoria's first of the season and may be a sign that his injured foot is feeling better. Loney again failed to get the winning run home, grounding out to the pitcher, lefty Brian Duensing. What followed next was a confusing carousel of moves.
With first base open, the Twins elected to intentionally walk Wil Myers, showing a good bit of respect for the young rookie, and bringing Sean Rodriguez to the plate, pinch hitting for Kelly Johnson. However, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire called in right-hander Ryan Pressly, prompting Maddon to counter with Sam Fuld before Rodriguez ever took a swing. Sam Fuld struck out swinging to end the threat and send the game into the thirteenth inning. Sad trombone. While Fuld over Rodriguez may have been the right call, Maddon lost the gamble when he pinch hit for Johnson in the first place. Surely he could see that Gardenhire had a right hander ready and one can't help but wonder if leaving Johnson in to face the lefty wouldn't have been the best option at the time.
With this recap eclipsing 1,200 words and the game slogging towards the five hour mark, Cesar Ramos entered the game as presumably the last man out of the pen. Maddon had told the pre-game media that Alex Torres would be unavailable after working two straight days so the fate of this one was in Ramos' hands. The left-hander wasted little time digging himself into a hole, allowing a single to Joe Mauer before a Ryan Doumit single would put runners on the corners with two outs. Ramos escaped the jam however, striking out Arcia for a fourth time to end the frame.
As the Rays hit in the bottom of the thirteenth, salty sea dog and Rays mascot, Raymond, donned his pajama's and began sleepily wandering the barren aisles of Tropicana Field. On the field, Yunel Escobar singled with one out. Jennings flied out to left before Luke Scott drew his third walk of the night after an extended at bat.
Mercifully for Raymond, me, and the rest of the Rays fans, Ben Zobrist decided now was a perfect time for his first hit of the night, a shot to the gap in right that brought Escobar in to score and sent the Rays home victors, 4-3 in thirteen innings.