ST. PETERSBURG — They first noticed the change coming over them in the early morning hours after the Friday/Saturday marathon victory. The feeling among the Rays has been building since: a season-high surge of belief and confidence — accompanied, most importantly, by results — that manifested in a four-game sweep of the Orioles, capped by Monday's pulsing 5-4 walkoff win.
And after they celebrated James Loney's game-ending pinch-hit blast and all that led up to it and packed for the six-game trip to New York and Toronto that concludes the regular season, the Rays were certain they would be back for more at the Trop.
"Absolutely," manager Joe Maddon said. "We'll be playing here again this year."
To do so, the Rays (87-69) have to hang on to the top wild-card spot by finishing at least tied with the Indians (now one game back) and beating out the Rangers (two behind), so they would host the Oct. 2 American League wild-card game. (Or they could end up as the second wild card and win on the road to return for Division Series play, or host a Game 163 play-in game, but that's not what they're talking about.)
They had legit reason to believe after all that went into Monday's victory, before a crowd of 17,830, their team record-tying 13th walkoff win of the season.
"We keep playing like this, we're going to go far," said Joel Peralta, their sixth and final reliever.
Start with Tim Beckham making his first start in the big leagues and one of three rookies in the Game 156 lineup, and having a hand in their first two runs.
Two huge game-changing, if not game-saving, throws by Ben Zobrist, who didn't know until about an hour before first pitch that he even was playing leftfield for only the second time this season.
A two-run tying single in the seventh by Wil Myers — that was actually caught by Orioles second baseman Alexi Casilla then dropped after a collision with rightfielder Nick Markakis — to snap a mind-boggling team 0-for-18 streak, and 2-for-27, with the bases loaded.
Then the winning homer by Loney, who was given the day off because he'd looked fatigued, and, with the hope just that he'd get on base (pinch-runner Freddy Guzman was at the ready), was well-rested enough to deliver their first pinch-hit home run of the entire season.
"Those are the things you need," Evan Longoria said. "You can't always go out and put up 10 runs and have a guy throw a shutout. It's great to finally get those breaks. And we're getting them at the right time."
The Rays seem convinced that prevailing in the marathon finally provided the momentum they need to propel them into the playoffs.
"When we were able to pull that out after 18 innings, it was like, 'Boy,' " Zobrist said. "And to get a win on Saturday after that game, it was like, wow, this is actually working out, coming a little bit easier.
"It just feels like a lot of the year, we'd get those moments and the next day let down … and right now we're gaining steam with that game and moving forward."
That spirit was tested Monday afternoon when the Orioles — who lost standout third baseman Manny Machado to an ominous-looking left knee injury — rallied against Chris Archer to take a 4-2 lead.
But, as he has sensed in past playoff-bound seasons, Maddon is convinced there is now that special hard-to-define, intangible feeling in the dugout that they somehow, some way will find a way to win.
"I don't think we've had this, kind of any time, regarding good feelings, expecting something good to happen and the positive outlook," he said. "Right now it's at its zenith I think."
If they're right, they'll find their way back to the Trop for another game or two — or 10.
"We will," catcher Jose Molina said. "We will."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @TBTimes_Rays.