ST. PETERSBURG — Hitting coach Derek Shelton hugged third baseman Evan Longoria and poured champagne over his head in a raucous Rays clubhouse, saying, "I'm proud of you."
Longoria's season couldn't have started any worse. His 1967 Chevrolet Camaro was stolen in March, his spring training home was broken into weeks later, and he missed the first month of the season with an oblique injury.
But the best part of Longoria's season was saved for last. His two-out, three-run homer in the eighth inning Wednesday brought Tampa Bay to within one run of the Yankees at 7-6. And then, with one out in the 12th and the scored tied at 7 a few minutes after midnight, Longoria delivered the biggest hit of the season, a walkoff solo homer to lift the Rays to an 8-7 AL wild-card-clinching victory.
"I'm just thinking about, 'Wow, did this really happen?' " Longoria said. "When I saw it clear the fence, it didn't seem real."
Said catcher Kelly Shoppach: "Holy Longo. An unbelievable player to step up and get us here."
Longoria said he wasn't necessarily thinking home run in the 12th. But the Tropicana Field crowd likely was, given that a few pitches before Longoria's blast, fans — and Rays — had cheered as the final score of the Orioles-Red Sox game, 4-3 Baltimore, was put on the screen.
"I had to step out cause everybody was cheering," Longoria said. "I figured the Orioles had won."
Three pitches later, Longoria hit a curling line drive just over the short fence by the leftfield foul pole.
"God bless that little short wall in leftfield," Ben Zobrist said.
Pinch-hitter Dan Johnson had tied the score in the ninth, sending the game into extra innings with a two-out, two-strike homer that just curled inside the rightfield foul pole.
Longoria's first homer was his 30th of the year, and 11th in his past 40 games, giving him a major-league-leading 79 RBIs since June 20. Longoria became the 14th player since 1900 to accumulate 100 homers and 400 RBIs in his first four seasons in the majors (six of those players are Hall of Famers, including Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams). Only one third baseman since 1900 has a higher RBI total in his first four seasons (Pinky Whitney, 409 from 1928-31).