It was the top of the ninth, the game was tied at one, with the Rays playing in Seattle. Felix Hernandez had delivered eight solid innings for the Mariners before J.J. Putz was brought in to preserve the tie. His first pitch resulted in a lineout from Carl Crawford. Coming up to the the plate next was Evan Longoria, the Rays rookie phenom who had led the team to first place in the American League East.
The count quickly reached 0-2, so Longoria would have to protect on anything close. Putz went into his motion and delivered his pitch. Longoria, anticipating something fast, prepared to swing the bat. The ball traveled towards the inside portion of plate, then tailed further in. Meanwhile, Longoria's load left his wrist exposed and before he could reverse and dive out of the way the ball connected solidly with the right side of right wrist and spiked straight down into the plate.
Longoria took his base, slowly walking up the first base line to the bag, as the Mariners tried to argue that he had swung at the pitch. Once he reached the base, Longoria's pain was still noticeable, as he tried to shake it off. He remained in the game and even advanced to third on a Carlos Pena single. Then, once the side had been retired, he went into the field, albeit for one batter (as Dan Wheeler immediately gave up a walkoff homer to Raul Ibanez). The loss put the Rays just two and half games up over the Red Sox for the first in the division.
Willy Aybar was acquired just before spring training from the Atlanta Braves for a career minor leaguer. Aybar had a couple years of major league experience with Los Angeles and Atlanta in 2005 and 2006, but had spent 2007 in the minors. Aybar had so far spent the 2008 season as a reserve infielder, giving Pena and Longoria some time off their feet every once in a while. He actually had been replaced by Longoria after the first week of the season, as Aybar went down with an injury himself. When Longoria was hit, Aybar had gotten a hit in only seven of his last 54 at bats, good for a .134 average.
However, the Rays would need Aybar to produce, as a few days after being hit, Evan Longoria was diagnosed with a fractured right wrist and was placed on the 15-day disabled list. The day after Longoria's hit by pitch (before he was placed on the DL), Aybar was already in the starting lineup at third base. He went 1-4 that night, and then 1-6 the next. Nonetheless, the Rays managed to win both games and increased their division lead by a game.
On August 10th, the Rays were playing their fourth game in Seattle to complete the series. Aybar was batting eighth and starting at third. R.A. Dickey got the start, and he faced Aybar with one out, and two on as the game was scoreless in the top of the second. He battled Aybar for six pitches, before making a mistake with a 3-2 delivery that Aybar belted into the seats in left for a three-run homer. That was Aybar's first home run since July 21st. He wasn't finished however, as later on in the day, with Tampa Bay leading 9-1, Aybar clobbered another one, sending a ball into the left field seats once again, giving Aybar the first multi-homer day of his career.
A few nights later on August 15th, while the Rays were in Texas to face the Rangers, and Aybar came through again. After three innings of play, Matt Garza and Kevin Millwood had traded zero's on the board. Aybar lead off the fourth inning and smashed the first pitch he saw, sending a towering drive down the right field line, just fair, to give the Rays a 1-0 lead. That's all Matt Garza needed as he tossed a complete game shutout and the Rays won, 7-0.
Over the span of one month (August 10th to September 10th), Aybar slashed .321/.389/.545 with five long balls and 13 extra base hits altogether. He raised his batting average by 50 points, his on-base percentage by 40 points, and his slugging percentage by 60 points. Once Evan Longoria returned, Aybar stepped back into his bench role with the team and finished the year having slashed .253/.327/.410 with 10 home runs.
Willy Aybar was just one of the many cogs that made 2008 such an amazing year to be a Rays fan. In a year of many heroes, his role often gets overlooked. However, his time filling in for Evan Longoria's wasn't even Aybar's signature moment with the team.
No, that came during game seven of the American League Championship Series against Boston. With Tampa Bay clinging on to a 2-1 lead, late in the game, Willy Aybar stepped up. He worked a solid at-bat against Jon Lester, then suddenly, he connected.
His mighty uppercut swing sent ball deep into the seats in left, igniting an already explosive crowd at Tropicana Field and setting the stage for the team to take game seven, become the American League champions and, procede to the World Series for the first time ever in the team's history. During 14 games in the 2008 playoffs, Aybar slashed .353/.361/.588 with two homers.
Willy Aybar wasn't a great player. His bat was the definition of average, and while he played strong defense in 2008 his range appeared to falter in the years following. Still, the Rays needed him to play at a high level to keep their remarkable first season of relevance going and he did not disappoint. Willy Aybar had his moment.