ST. PETERSBURG — Rays infielder Reid Brignac said that in any other stadium in the majors, the popup by Twins outfielder Jason Kubel in the ninth inning Thursday afternoon would have been an out.
"Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the time," Rays first baseman Dan Johnson said.
But Tropicana Field is no ordinary park, and the sleepy-turned-stunning game was no ordinary 8-6 loss for Tampa Bay in front of 29,210 fans.
The Rays had overcome a six-run deficit to tie it in the eighth inning thanks to a two-out, pinch-hit Jason Bartlett grand slam. But the Rays' fortunes, and emotions, did a 180 when Kubel's two-out infield fly struck the A-ring catwalk about 190 feet above the field and dropped near the pitcher's mound to allow the go-ahead run to score from third. It was the second ball in the park's 13-year history to hit that catwalk.
"That's just a gift right there," Kubel said.
The Rays chose other words to describe it: frustrating, unlucky, unbelievable. Manager Joe Maddon made it a stadium issue, saying it showed why there's a "crying need" for a new ballpark, "wherever they put it …
"If you lose the pennant by one game and look back at a game like that because the roof got in the way, we'd be very upset."
The players left for Toronto saying the loss put a sour end to what was an impressive 8-3 homestand against three contending teams. Tampa Bay (67-41) fell a half-game behind the idle first-place Yankees in the AL East.
"I'm sure on the flight a lot of guys are going to be thinking about it," centerfielder B.J. Upton said. "Just coming in after the game, a lot of guys weren't happy about it, especially the way we fought back and came back the way we did. Not to say we were going to win that game, but we put ourselves in position. Unfortunately, the A-ring took us out of it."
Bartlett, who stayed in to play shortstop, said emotions went from one extreme to another. The Rays, in a 6-0 hole after rookie Wade Davis' rough start, had just two hits through seven innings. But the Rays rallied, thanks to an Upton homer, two walks, a single and a hit by pitch that set the stage for Bartlett, whose slam came off lefty Ron Mahay.
"That was the last thing I was expecting out of myself," Bartlett said.
"Wow," Johnson said of the rally. "I almost didn't believe it, and I was playing."
The Rays couldn't believe what happened next. Reliever Joaquin Benoit, who had been unflappable all season, had runners on first and third with two outs in the ninth when he got Kubel to pop up a 3-and-1 pitch.
Bartlett said he knew from experience, both at the Trop and the old Metrodome, that it's easy to lose fly balls at the top of the roof. Both Bartlett and Brignac, the second baseman, were on the outer edge of the infield when the ball hit the catwalk.
Bartlett raced forward about 60 feet but was 20 feet short as the ball hit near the mound.
Count Benoit, who was charged with two runs after giving up just three previously all season, as another Ray who felt helpless. "There was nothing I could do," he said, "but watch."
"I've never seen a ball hit in that spot," Bartlett said. "Usually it's right above the plate or in the outfield for a home run. So I think that's the last thing people were expecting right there."
The only other ball to hit the A-ring also came in a game with the Twins (Carlos Peña, May 31, 2009).
Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said he remembers losing a game in similar fashion (May 2, 2007), when Pena's infield fly hit the B-ring and fell for a single in the 10th of a 4-3 Rays victory. As a joke, Rays spokesman Rick Vaughn put a mannequin with a Twins uniform on the catwalk the next day.
But on Thursday, the Twins got the last laugh.
"So we'll put a Twins (uniform) up there for them today," Gardenhire said. "You know how this game goes: It can make you laugh, it can make you cry. They got us a couple years ago, and today it turned out our way."