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Johnny Damon's walkoff homer lifts Tampa Bay Rays 4-3 in 10 innings

ST. PETERSBURG — So much ran through Johnny Damon's head from the moment he hit the ball just over the rightfield wall to give the Rays a thrilling 4-3, 10-inning victory Thursday, as he pumped his fist on his way around the bases, tossed his helmet and jumped into the bouncing welcoming party at home and wiped the celebratory shaving cream pie applied by B.J. Upton off his face.

But what felt best, he said in the clubhouse nearly a half-hour later, was feeling like he now was really a Ray.

"For me, it's doing it in front of the fans," he said. "I know they're expecting a lot of from me, and being a kid from this area, the first homestand was tough, the first four at-bats (Thursday) were tough, but hopefully that can definitely say that I'm one of theirs.

"I think that's a very true statement. It was good to get our first win here. There's definitely a lot of emotions that goes into it for me."

There was a lot of emotion all around as the Rays (4-8) celebrated a win, their third straight, that seemed improbable for much of the night as they played before a gathering of just 10,042, the smallest crowd at the Trop since the Devil Rays days of 2007.

"It's nice to see them celebrate like that in the clubhouse," manager Joe Maddon said. "The walkoff wins do tend to erupt, obviously. We needed something like that to really get us going a little bit."

Held hitless into the fifth and two outs from being shut out for the first time in a season defined by a lack of offense, the Rays first rallied for two runs in the ninth off Joe Nathan, whom Maddon simply described as one of the best closers of the last 20 years or so. Matt Joyce got the huge hit, a two-run double, after Maddon made a big decision, starting the runners — Felipe Lopez, who doubled, and Ben Zobrist, who walked — on a 3-and-1 pitch, to take advantage of Nathan's slow delivery to the plate.

But they gave the lead right back, a passed ball by catcher John Jaso setting up the Twins' 10th-inning run.

Two outs from defeat again, the Rays staged another comeback, this time off Matt Capps. Sam Fuld singled and Damon, stepping literally and figuratively into a leadership role since the "retirement" of Manny Ramirez, knocked a 1-and-0 sinker just over the wall for the sixth walkoff homer of his career (and third against the Twins).

"I think he recognizes the void," Maddon said. "I think he's smart enough to see that. I've seen him elevate his way — it's a little bit more demonstrative. He's getting out there. And I think he understands that I fully, fully accept what he does and how he does it, and I think that helps him, too."

Damon said he's not trying to replace Ramirez, his longtime friend and teammate, but also acknowledged his departure may have been "a blessing" as the Rays are better configured with Fuld in the outfield and Damon at DH. "I think we've become a better team," he said.

Having started 1-for-15 as the Rays lost all five games on their first homestand, and hitless in his first four at-bats Thursday, Damon, even at 37 and in his 16th season, wanted badly to show what he could do with his hometown team, having grown up in Orlando.

"Going into that last at-bat knowing I hadn't done anything but knowing I've been in that situation so many times before, I knew exactly what we needed," Damon said. "Rounding the bases, I was just so excited, and then coming home and seeing my teammates excited, walkoffs are great.

"I don't think you can ever get too tired of those. They're exciting and it's great for our team. I love the fact our team is coming together now.''

Johnny Damon's walkoff homer lifts Tampa Bay Rays 4-3 in 10 innings 04/14/11 [Last modified: Friday, April 15, 2011 9:08am]
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