ST. PETERSBURG — The unlikely, unbelievable, are-you-kidding-me victories keep coming for the Rays, who did it again Sunday when Gabe Gross hit a most unexpected homer to give them a 4-3 10-inning win over the White Sox.
And the longer they keep doing it, and the later into the season it gets, the more the feeling grows among them that there could be more to it than just a series of surprising wins.
"We have something very special going on in this clubhouse, and it's magical," Carlos Pena said. "We must take notice and embrace this very close to our hearts. We have to know that because it's real. It's real. We're playing good baseball, and we have all the tools necessary to keep it going."
The Rays have developed something of a formula, combining tremendous pitching, excellent defense and just enough hitting. They have an AL-best 35-22 record, and a one-game East lead over the Red Sox as they head to Boston for what manager Joe Maddon called "kind of a fun shootout" starting Tuesday night.
But it's how they are doing it, and how it's someone different almost every day, that has made it seem more like the start of something rather than just a good start.
Sunday, to begin at the end, that meant the left-handed-hitting Gross, with six hits, an .095 career average against lefties and rare opportunities to improve on it, hitting the winner off lefty Matt Thornton — and on an 0-and-2 pitch. It not only was his first big-league homer off a left-hander, but his first to end a game.
"I never dwelt too much about hitting a walkoff," said Gross, 28, "but if I had it probably wouldn't have lived up to it."
And that was two at-bats after Gross, in the lineup as something of a defensive addition and last option with lefties Carl Crawford, Cliff Floyd and Eric Hinske off, laced a triple that scored two runs to tie it off left-handed starter Mark Buehrle.
"It was kind of a difficult situation," Maddon said. "You give him a chance to play then you put him in there against lefties, that's kind of unfair to him. But he definitely rose to the occasion.
"The triple against Buehrle is one thing. Hitting a home run with two strikes against that guy, that guy being Thornton, who is like ridiculously good (four hits allowed to lefties coming in) in that moment, that is really impressive."
If Gross, acquired in late April from Milwaukee, wasn't an unlikely enough star, converted starter J.P. Howell capped another fine day of relief, after a shaky start by Andy Sonnanstine, with another clutch performance. He got the final six outs, the last three with the potential go-ahead run in scoring position, to improve to 4-0 with a 3.38 ERA, and further his status as team MVP, as Maddon anointed him a few weeks ago.
"It's fun, man, a lot of fun," Howell said. "I accept it now. I can look at what it is and not be scared of it. … I understand this is what I trained for and my approach and mind-set is for pressure, and that's what I want. It's definitely a certain kind of high."
By the end, before a rollicking Tropicana Field crowd of 24,720, the Rays had their third walkoff win in eight days and sixth of the season.
Those blue 9=8 T-shirts Maddon had made, symbolizing the belief that it takes nine men playing hard for nine innings to become one of the eight playoff teams, seem like more than a fashion statement.
"We understand you play till the last out," he said. "When you get the belief that if you keep it close that you can win it in the end, that's a great feeling to have within this game, and I think right now we have that feeling.
"We have to nurture it and maintain it. And we've definitely been nurturing it, my God."
Marc Topkin can be reached at