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Dad asks, and Tampa Bay Rays' Matt Joyce delivers

Matt Joyce tips his hat to the crowd after his three-run homer in the seventh inning gave the Rays a 5-3 lead over the Yankees.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

Matt Joyce tips his hat to the crowd after his three-run homer in the seventh inning gave the Rays a 5-3 lead over the Yankees.

ST. PETERSBURG

The text messages went back and forth all afternoon. The father telling the son that he couldn't make it to the ballpark. The son insisting that the father didn't want to miss this game.

His sore back was acting up. It's too hard, the father said, to sit that long.

Come on, come on. I always hit better, the son said, when I know you're there.

Finally, the father relented.

With a condition.

"He told me to hit a bomb for him," Rays rightfielder Matt Joyce said. "I said, 'Yeah. Right. We'll see how it goes.' "

Hours later, the game was won, and the departing crowd was buzzing. It was Joyce's three-run homer in the seventh that may have saved a season in Tampa Bay, and he was on the field doing a television interview.

Before ducking back into the dugout, he spotted the man wearing a Joyce jersey and waving a Rays hat about 24 rows up.

That's when the son paused. He pointed, smiled and waved to the father.

"He always finds me and points. Kind of like, 'That's for you dad,' " Matt Sr. said. "He knows I love it."

In a season that will not end, on a team that refuses to die, it was Joyce's turn to play savior for the Rays on Tuesday night.

His right foot was killing him, and his power had abandoned him. He had hit one home run in his past 29 games, a span covering more than six weeks and 100 plate appearances.

Joyce has always been a streaky hitter. The kind of guy who went 72 at-bats without a home run to start the season and then hit eight homers in his next 74 at-bats.

"We talk every day about staying positive and trying not to let him have any negative thoughts," said hitting coach Derek Shelton. "It's just a matter of reassuring him he's a good player. I think every player needs to be told that at times.

"As good as he is, and as good as his swing is, you know he's going to hit."

Lately, he's been hitting deeper in the order. Sixth and seventh. Even eighth. Yet when Joyce walked into the clubhouse on Tuesday afternoon, he saw manager Joe Maddon had penciled him in as the cleanup hitter.

So what went through his mind?

"Joe's at it again," Joyce said. "I don't know, he just has a knack for those things."

Part of Maddon's reasoning had to do with the pitching matchup. Part of it had to do with Ben Zobrist struggling a little from the left side of the plate.

And maybe part of it was trying to get Joyce back to driving the ball.

"A lot of it has had to do with how he's been pitched," Maddon said. "That's part of why I wanted to slot him in where I did (Tuesday night), just to see if he could get a better pitch to drive. He's been missing his pitch, too, on occasion. It hasn't been the same as the first half, where when he saw it, man, it was whacked. That hasn't been there consistently.

"But you know it's in there. You know it's in there, so how do you set it up so you can draw it out? That was part of my thought process (Tuesday)."

The first two at-bats were forgettable. Joyce popped up in the infield twice. He had tried wearing a shin guard and a foot guard to protect a deep bruise, but he discarded them after the first two at-bats. His third at-bat was better, but he was just a fraction off on a liner to left.

Which brought him to the seventh inning. And the benefit of hitting cleanup. Rafael Soriano had walked B.J. Upton to lead off the inning. And then he walked Evan Longoria. With the Yankees clinging to a 3-2 lead, Soriano could not afford to put another man on base.

So he threw a fastball to Joyce. And Joyce ripped it 368 feet over the rightfield wall.

Sitting in section 108, cranky back and all, a father stood and cheered.

"I'm glad I picked this night to finally hit another," the son said.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

The only way it could end

Columnist Gary Shelton says the season's drama had to come down to the final day. 1A

Today's games

• Rays vs. Yankees, 7:10 p.m., Sun Sports; Red Sox at Orioles 7:05 p.m., ESPN

So, what if …

• If the Rays or Red Sox win the wild card today, they open the best-of-five American League division series at 5:07 p.m. Friday at the Tigers or Rangers.

• If the Rays and Red Sox finish tied, a one-game playoff is at 4:07 p.m. Thursday at the Trop (TBS), with the winner going on to Detroit or Texas. Tickets ($19 to $300) go on sale at 9 a.m. today exclusively at raysbaseball.com. If there is no game, ticket prices and fees will be refunded.

Attendance woes

Despite their remarkable comeback, the Rays still aren't drawing well, and officials have few explanations. 1A

Dad asks, and Tampa Bay Rays' Matt Joyce delivers 09/28/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 28, 2011 1:28am]

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