Friday, June 22, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Jennings comes through for Rays

ST. PETERSBURG

It had been a rough night for Desmond Jennings.

Come to think of it, it had been a rough month for Desmond Jennings.

He had booted balls in the outfield. Misread liners. Turned outs into doubles, outs into triples.

Normally reliable and one of the best centerfielders in the big leagues, he had suddenly become a high-wire circus act every time a sinking liner was hit his way.

Fly balls he used to run down with ease had suddenly become adventures. And not just the hard ones, but the routine ones. His defensive woes had become such an issue that some wondered if he needed glasses.

He then carried his struggles in the field to the plate and had become so ineffective that Rays manager Joe Maddon no longer automatically penned him into the leadoff spot.

And while he slumped in the field and at the plate, the Rays continued their roller coaster ride — one day up, one day down — in a mad scramble to the postseason.

But one swing of the bat changed that. One swing of the bat fixed a broken night. One swing of the bat gave the Rays a game that makes you believe.

For the first time in who knows how long, the Rays won a game they had no business winning.

And it was Jennings who took that swing and delivered the winning hit, knocking in Sam Fuld with a single in the bottom of the 12th to give the Rays a 4-3 walkoff victory Wednesday.

From goat to star, that's how Jennings' night went. The Rangers scored two runs in the top of the second because Jennings butchered another liner in the outfield.

With two outs, Rangers No. 9 hitter Leonys Martin drilled a knuckling liner to centerfield.

Looking like a Little Leaguer, Jennings raced in, froze and started sprinting back. But you knew it was too late, and the ball sailed over his head, scoring two runs. For a long time, it looked like the blunder would cost the Rays yet another game.

The play was scored a triple, but it was a ball Jennings should have had.

"I just made a bad read on the ball, and it got over my head," Jennings said. "I just misread it. I misplayed it."

That has become a familiar postgame quote for Jennings. Since returning from the disabled list Aug. 19, Jennings has been charged with three errors, although one was later ruled a hit. There were three other balls he misplayed, including one that directly cost the Rays a victory.

This from a guy who had made one error from the start of the 2012 season until last month.

"It can bite you a little bit, and it has bitten him," Maddon said.

Jennings' struggles in the field followed him to the plate. Going into Wednesday night, he was 0-for-9 and was batting .169 in his past 27 games.

Then came the latest misplay in the field.

"If I wouldn't have misplayed it, I would have still been thinking about helping the team out," Jennings said. "But I definitely wanted to redeem myself."

He finally got his chance in the 12th.

"I still have confidence," Jennings insisted.

And he proved it.

Jose Lobaton led off the inning with a single, and then pinch-runner Fuld moved to second on a Yunel Escobar single. Jennings then followed with a single to right.

"Oh yeah," Jennings said when asked if he thought Fuld would score.

And as the Rays dugout poured onto the field to mob Jennings and Fuld, you finally felt the Rays had a signature win that could propel them into the playoffs.

And it finally looked as if Jennings had shed his recent struggles.

"(Confidence) is fragile, man," Maddon said. "I don't care how long a guy has played. It matters. If you have it or you don't, it matters. And yes, it can help him along."

The Rays still have plenty of issues. They are 17-23 since Aug. 6. Just 17 wins in 40 chase-to-the-pennant games. Does that sound like a playoff team to you?

But one swing changed everything Wednesday night.

Not only for Jennings. But just maybe for the Rays.

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