Sunday, February 25, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Lobaton unlikely hero for Rays in ALDS Game 3

ST. PETERSBURG — Of all of the suspects in the lineup, who would have expected the Ice Cream Kid?

Evan Longoria, maybe.

Matt Joyce, perhaps.

Ben Zobrist, could be.

Instead, it was Jose Lobaton, the grinning, happy backup catcher, who drove one into the Rays' tank from Boston's Koji Uehara to keep the Rays' season alive.

Yeah, that guy.

Let's face it. The odds are still against the Rays. But somehow, things feel better, and the field seems more even. The Rays finally found some juice, and they finally had a few big hits, and they finally kept the Red Sox at bay. Not only that, but they won in a walkoff late Monday evening when Lobaton drove the second pitch he saw over the right-centerfield fence for a 5-4 win.

Remember Dan Johnson, the former cult hero of the Rays who once burned Boston himself? This was that kind of a moment. This was everything you want to say about a player coming through in a moment that seemed to be bigger than he was.

Granted, Lobaton had flashed this kind of flair earlier in the season when he won a game in August with a triple and another with a home run two days later. But this was a lose-or-go-home game, remember? This was a guy grabbing on to some lore for himself against Uehara.

"It's weird," Lobaton said. "I don't know if I have words for how it feels. It feels like you're a kid, running around the bases. It's a special feeling."

Think about the matchup for a minute. Uehara had 44 perfect relief appearances this year and led American League relievers with a 1.09 earned-run average. He had given up only one earned run in his past 38 appearances.

On the other hand, Lobaton had hit .184 during September, and he had never had a postseason hit. It was not exactly the kind of matchup that had the fans in rightfield waiting for the ball.

"If you're going to bet some bucks on that, you're going to lose," said Rays manager Joe Maddon. "He climbed all over that. (The ball) was down, but he got the head of the bat on it, and the rest is Rays history.

"I swear I was looking down on my (lineup) card and preparing for what's going to happen, and I heard that knock. I look up, and the ball is going toward the tank, and nobody hits home runs there. Nobody does.

"How about that? It's incredible."

Ah, but strange things happen in baseball.

Some of them, it seems, lead to sheer delirium.

"The last time I had a walkoff home run, they gave me, like, 20 ice creams," said Lobaton. "It was good. But today it's postseason, it's different. If I keep hitting, maybe I'll get fat."

He said that, and he laughed. There is something about Lobaton that makes him seem younger that his 28 years. There is still enough newcomer there, still enough of a kid playing ball in the street. And a kid celebrates with ice cream. Considering the Rays' rocky road, that's fitting, too.

When you tell the Lobaton story, of how he went deep late in the night, of how his ball splashed down in the tank, do not forget this part: It was only by luck and happenstance that Lobaton batted in the first place.

At the top of the eighth inning, rightfielder Wil Myers had to leave the game because of cramps in both legs. It didn't seem like a problem because Myers had just struck out (to go to 0-for-12 in the series). All Maddon had to do was sub in, say, Sam Fuld to finish the game.

Maddon, however, had other thoughts. He put Joyce into the game, sacrificing the designated hitter to preserve his bench. By the time the game got around to the ninth inning, bench coach Dave Martinez told Lobaton he was going to hit.

"I was walking to home plate, and I was thinking I was going to try to hit the ball," Lobaton said. "I was going to try to get a double. I don't need a single.

"He threw me a splitter, and I said, 'Wow, that's a good splitter.' He threw me the next pitch, and I hit the ball hard, and I said, 'I think I've got it.' "

Yeah, he got it, all right. The memory of it will last for a while.

"He wants that moment," said teammate James Loney. "He wants to be up there in that pressure situation."

Add that moment to the list of the best ones by the Rays. Add it to the Johnson and the Longoria and the Matt Garza and the rest of them. A backup catcher takes one of the American League's best pitchers deep, and because of it, his team still has a pulse in the American League Division Series.

All in all, it was a pretty good night for Longoria's 28th birthday.

Turns out, Lobaton brought the ice cream.

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