ST. PETERSBURG — Cliff Floyd said he couldn't remember the last time his face was smothered with shaving cream in celebration of a walkoff hit.
"It's been a long time," Floyd said with a grin. "But it never gets old."
But for the 38-year-old veteran, it's likely never been this sweet.
Though his presence has been felt throughout the clubhouse in the Rays' remarkable run, Floyd, who spent a month on the disabled list earlier this season, yearned for a special on-field contribution.
Judging by the jubilation of Floyd's teammates jumping all over him after his walkoff homer in the ninth beat the White Sox 2-1 in front of 14,679 at the Trop, they wanted it just as much as he did.
"Since Day 1, he's been a big part of this," centerfielder B.J. Upton said. "He's part of the reason why (we're at) where we're at right now."
Where the Rays (33-22) are is first place in the AL East, with the best record in the American League. To stay that way, they had to overcome another strong pitching performance by Jose Contreras and the AL Central-leading White Sox (30-24), whose bullpen hadn't given up an earned run in its past nine games (28 innings).
It was Rays starter James Shields, though not as sharp as he typically is, who gave them a chance. Shields continued to pitch well at home, giving up just one run in six innings. The steady right-hander did get a little help from his defense, as he got out of threats in the second and third with inning-ending double plays.
Shields gave up his share of hits (seven), including a solo homer by Alexei Ramirez in the fifth, but put together another quality start.
"Fastball command was not where he'd like to see it," manager Joe Maddon said. "That is really an indication of a winning pitcher."
The Rays, who had trouble with timely hitting in Thursday's loss (2-for-14 with runners in scoring position), didn't do much better Friday (1-for-8). Akinori Iwamura, who had two hits, sparked a two-out rally in the third with a single, then scored on a single by Upton.
The bullpen once again did its job. Al Reyes struck out three in the seventh, and J.P. Howell got out of a two-on, two-out jam in the eighth by getting Jim Thome to ground out to Carlos Pena at first; Dan Wheeler pitched a scoreless ninth to set up the heroics.
For Floyd, it nearly wasn't meant to be. When the Rays put two runners on with two out in the eighth, switch-hitter Willy Aybar replaced Floyd in the on-deck circle. Maddon wanted him prepared to pinch hit against lefty Matt Thornton.
But after Evan Longoria lined out, Floyd got his chance in the ninth. "Things work in mysterious ways," Floyd said.
Floyd hit a second-pitch fastball from Scott Linebrink 406 feet, just over the wall in right-center. After his fourth career walkoff homer, and first since 2005, Floyd tossed his helmet in the air a few steps from home plate before jumping into the pile. It was the Rays' fifth walkoff victory this season, tied with the Reds and Dodgers for most in the majors.
"Hopefully we win the whole season the way things are going right now," Floyd said. "And it'd be nice to pop some bottles at the end of this thing."