The old cliche is that baseball is a game of inches and the Sunday afternoon rubber match between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Tampa Bay Rays proved once again how significant such a small measurement can be.
The Rays beat the Jays 2-1, the smallest of margins, but even the result on the scoreboard does not convey the minute differences between two clubs on this day.
In the bottom of the first inning, Rays third baseman Evan Longoria took a Todd Redmond sinker and launched it towards the stands in right field. The ball sent Jose Bautista all the way to the wall before a Rays fan in the front row snagged it out of the air with his glove. Blue Jays manager, John Gibbons argued that the ball was interfered with in the field of play prompting umpires to review the play, but the call stood and Longoria had himself his 24th home run of the season by a matter of inches.
In the top of the seventh, Rays rookie right-hander Chris Archer found himself one strike away from seven shutout innings, having allowed just one hit (an Anthony Gose single in the fourth) while striking out five. However, Archer left a 1-2 slider about an inch too high in the zone that Edwin Encarnacion crushed to left field to tie the game at one.
The Rays looked like they would immediately regain the lead in the bottom half of the seventh inning after James Loney lead off with a single and Yunel Escobar lined a single into center field. Sean Rodriguez entered the game to pinch run for Loney and found himself at third base with no outs in the inning. Joe Maddon elected to remove lefty Kelly Johnson and went with Wednesday's hero, Jason Bourgeois against Jays left-hander Brett Cecil. Maddon elected to try the safety squeeze play that the Rays have masterfully executed in the past but this time Bourgeois, who is still new to Rays way, missed the bunt by an inch, a small measure that would again have a huge impact on game.
Rodriguez had strayed too far from the bag as Bourgeois leaned in to bunt, and now found himself in no mans land. He stayed in a run down long enough to allow Escobar to move into second base but runners on the corners with no outs was now man on second with one out. Bourgeois grounded out to first base two pitches later and Jose Lobaton struck out swinging--a frustrating end to a promising rally.
Luck would swing back in the Rays favor in the top of the ninth inning with closer Fernando Rodney on the mound attempting to protect the 1-1 tie. Encarnacion connected again on a 98-mph fastball sending a ball deep into the left field corner towards 162 landing. However, Rodney and the Rays would catch a huge break as the ball hit the very top of the low wall and bounced back into the field of play for a double, a measly inch short of a go-ahead home run. Rodney recovered and retired Adam Lind to end the inning and give the Rays a chance in the ninth.
A game of inches indeed.
It would not be until the Rays played free baseball in the tenth inning that a play would be more definitive. With one out and no one one, Lobaton connected with a 2-1 Brad Lincoln fastball and launched it deep into left field, down the stairwell and out in to the Tropicana Field concourse. He was greeted at home by his jubilant teammates and rewarded with his second Gatorade shower of the weekend, as well as copious amounts of shaving cream pies and ice cream sandwiches.
Lobaton became the first Rays player to record multiple walk off hits this season, doing in back to back fashion, as the team had nine walk offs from nine different players coming into play Sunday.
The Rays ensured that no matter the results in Oakland or Baltimore they would remain atop the wildcard standings and with the Yankees and Red Sox squaring off tonight on ESPN they gave themselves a chance to pull back within one of the AL East leaders, Boston. After losing six straight games the Rays were able to bounce back and take four out of six on the home stand and will now head out on the road for a short three game trip to Baltimore before hosting the Yankees next weekend.