DETROIT — Of all the things the Rays accomplished this year, this had to rank among the oddest.
Edwin Jackson was unexpectedly used as the closer Sunday, blew the first save opportunity of his career by allowing a two-run homer in the ninth and ended up matching James Shields and original Ray Rolando Arrojo with a franchise-record 14 wins for the season.
"Oh man," Jackson said after the 8-7 11-inning win. "Baseball gods work in mysterious ways."
For the Rays, it was a fitting end to their amazing regular season as they fell behind 5-0 then staged one of their typical late-game rallies to take the lead, with homers by Rocco Baldelli and Eric Hinske and a big bases-loaded double (off a right-hander no less) by Jonny Gomes, plus their major-league-leading 25th bases-loaded walk.
They gave it up when Magglio Ordonez homered off Jackson, then went back ahead in the 11th when Ben Zobrist hit his fourth homer of the weekend and 12th of the season.
The win kept them from finishing on a four-game losing streak. Manager Joe Maddon said it wouldn't have mattered much and that "by the time Thursday comes, nobody really remembers what you did on Sunday."
But others agreed it was good for momentum, and confidence. "I wouldn't have felt good anyway going away with four losses," Zobrist said.
CC COMEBACK: LF Carl Crawford's chances of returning to the lineup for Thursday's playoffs opener improved again Sunday after another good, and pain-free, day of batting practice. He later played a couple of innings in leftfield.
Crawford, recovering from Aug. 14 right hand surgery, will advance to his next test today, when, weather permitting, he plays the first of potentially several games with the Rays instructional league squad (1 p.m., Naimoli Complex, 7901 30th Ave. N). He expects to get five at-bats, do some situational work, run the bases and play defense.
"I'm just happy to be back swinging the bat again; I've got to get back up to game speed," Crawford said. "I've got to get over there and see where I'm at. That will really let me know. Right now, I can't tell."
Maddon acknowledged there will be some rustiness since Crawford hasn't played in more than seven weeks, but he liked what he saw the past two days here and said if Crawford handled the instructional league assignment well, "I don't think I'd have a whole lot of concern."
VOTE FOR EVAN: Ballots for the major postseason awards are due at the end of the regular season, and Maddon said 3B Evan Longoria (.272, 27 HRs, 85 RBIs in 122 games) has to be the top choice for AL rookie of the year.
"I don't even know what the rest of the group looks like," Maddon said, "but from what I've seen it's hard to imagine that he would not win it. Even by missing as much time as he did, his power numbers, his hitting when we needed clutch hitting, his defense has been spectacular. The contribution he's made to us winning the division is incredibly large, for a rookie to be as impactful in the middle of the lineup he has."
MISCELLANY: Likely ALDS Game 1 starter James Shields worked one inning, throwing 10 pitches to get three outs. … Tigers pitching coach Chuck Hernandez, a former Ray and Tampa native, was fired Sunday. … Gomes was hitless in his past 28 at-bats against right-handers before his double off Freddy Dolsi. … Maddon polled the regulars and relievers to see who wanted to play and how long; Akinori Iwamura, Cliff Floyd, Dioner Navarro and Carlos Pena sat out. … Hinske notched his 20th homer. … Maddon met with the players to discuss playoffs logistics and scheduling, including 1 p.m. workouts Tuesday and Wednesday.
The Rays are the 10th team in modern history to improve by 30 or more games from one season to the next: