ST. PETERSBURG — Once again, it came down to a question of fight.
On the mound, with first place on the line, and a proud man's heart on full display.
This time, the Red Sox were a small part of the show. This time, there were no cheap shots at second base or punches thrown on the mound. This time, it was a manager and his favorite player fighting against one another and, simultaneously, for each other.
When Joe Maddon left the dugout with two outs and the tying run on third base, he knew he was inviting trouble. He was braced for what Troy Percival would say, and he was determined not to budge.
"It's like being with your kids — you eventually have to make a decision what you think is right," Maddon said. "Whether they can stay out until 2 o'clock in the morning, or whether this guy can pitch to one more hitter.
"I knew in my heart and my head it was the right thing to do at that particular moment."
What followed was exquisite baseball theater. The collision of emotion and reason. One man too invested to admit he was through and another too responsible to ignore the obvious.
You see, in baseball terms, Percival is an old man. A lifer. A crusty SOB with a belly full of fire and an arm hanging on to its heat. His mid-section has grown wide, and his hamstring has turned weak. He has money; he has a World Series ring, and he has more saves than all but eight men in history.
But the years, the numbers and the wealth have not dimmed his pride.
So he forcefully suggested he could retire one more hitter. Maddon disagreed. Percival threw one warmup pitch and then another. Maddon held firm.
Eventually, Percival, 38, began to curse and shout.
"I didn't say anything bad to him, other than 'I don't f------ want to come out of the game,' " Percival said. "And I don't want anybody out there that wants to come out of the game."
Eventually, Maddon sternly warned he had heard enough.
"I knew he was going to be upset," Maddon said. "Look, he and I go way back. We're going to be fine. This guy has done that for years. He's always been the last man standing.
"But you have to consider all of those Rays fans sitting up there, and everybody standing on that field. We had a lot invested in that game. So as much as I wanted to see Percy get that, you have to do what's right for everyone."
When it was over, when J.P. Howell had come in from the bullpen and got Julio Lugo to line out to shortstop and the Rays prepared to enter July with the best record in baseball, Percival went looking for Maddon in the clubhouse.
"I said, 'I wasn't mad at you. I knew when you were looking at me, you knew I wasn't mad at you. I was just mad at the situation,' " Percival said. "He said, 'Percy, I know you. I know you weren't mad at me. I could tell you were just frustrated because of your leg.' "
This is not the first time Percival's hamstring has caused Tampa Bay pain. Once before, Maddon had to take a wobbly Percival out in a save situation, and the last time the closer landed on the disabled list.
Officially, no one is suggesting that will happen this time around. Maddon said the team will re-evaluate today. Percival said the leg doesn't feel as sore as the last incident.
But, odds are, Percival will be returning to the DL. The Rays might delay it for a couple of days to see if the hamstring miraculously heals, but it makes too much sense to shut him down.
With the All-Star break approaching, Percival would get an extra four days to heal and possibly put this behind him for good.
He means far too much to the Rays to risk an injury that could knock him out of the second half of the season. Two weeks in July would be a problem. Two months in August and September could be devastating.
"I've had pulled hamstrings. I mean, my God, they hurt. And they don't go away just like that," Maddon said. "If you keep re-tweaking, it is very annoying and it hurts, and there is not a whole lot you can do about it."
For now, Percival has the leg wrapped so tightly it is practically numb by the time he comes out of the bullpen. He has tweaked his delivery, and he has accepted that every appearance will end in pain.
He has the desire and the pride to gut it out, if need be.
The Rays are never quite sure what they are going to get out of Percival in terms of performance, but they're quite certain he will not leave without a fight.
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com.