ST. PETERSBURG — As closer Troy Percival warmed up to pitch the ninth Sunday and the Rays clinging to a 4-4 tie with Baltimore, a few infielders gathered behind the mound.
Rookie third baseman Evan Longoria said he told Carlos Pena, "If he gets out of this inning, we're gonna win this game.
"I have no doubts."
Neither did Pena, who, after walking with one out in the bottom half, said to himself, "It's over."
Five pitches later, it was. Longoria, coming off his two-homer, six-RBI game Saturday, ripped an RBI double to right-center — his second walkoff hit of his young career — to lift the Rays to a 5-4, sweep-clinching victory over the Orioles and back into first place in the AL East.
Pena, hustling to score from first, slid into home even though there was no throw because "that's the only way I could stop." And after the Rays (30-20) jumped around in yet another postgame celebratory scrum, many of the 17,762 fans at the Trop likely wondered if this memorable early season run will ever end.
Tampa Bay, which is tied for the best record in baseball with Arizona, has won nine of its past 11 series (against the likes of the Red Sox, Yankees and Angels), has reached 30 wins 14 games faster than any time in club history and is a division-best 21-12 against the AL East, where it had remained in the cellar for most of its 11-year existence.
"Our goal is to continue to do things that have never been done here before," manager Joe Maddon said. "We just look for that on a daily basis. We're not in any shape or form complacent about this; we know we have a long way to go. …
"We have to continue to push and take, 'cause nobody is going to give us anything."
Rays starter James Shields gave his team a chance to win even though he wasn't at his best, battling through eight innings while giving up four runs. He had been given a 4-1 lead in the third largely thanks to the trio of Pena, Longoria and B.J. Upton, who are finding their strokes. Upton, who had reached base in eight straight plate appearances before flying out in the fourth, walked to set up Pena's two-run homer off Daniel Cabrera; it was Pena's 10th of the season, fifth against the Orioles.
Baltimore (24-25) battled back, tying the score in the sixth on a solo homer by ex-Ray Aubrey Huff. But it could have been worse had it not been for another sparkling day by the Rays defense.
There was Carl Crawford, who made an impressive diving catch near the leftfield foul line to rob Melvin Mora in the first inning. In the fifth, there was second baseman Akinori Iwamura, who raced up the middle for a Freddie Bynum grounder, throwing on the run and across his body to get Bynum at first. And there was third baseman Longoria, who barehanded a sacrifice bunt in the seventh and threw Ramon Hernandez out at first.
"Spectacular major-league plays all over the place," Maddon said.
In Longoria's brief big-league career, it has been his play defensively that has impressed coaches and teammates the most. No matter if he were slumping, such as a 7-for-50 stretch earlier this month, or hot, as in his recent 13-for-37 run; the 22-year-old's defense "is not rookie-esque," Maddon said.
Neither, seemingly, is Longoria's performance in clutch situations, something he's growing increasingly comfortable with.
Said Shields: "He's the real deal."
If Shields' confident club continues its winning ways, the baseball world will likely be saying the same thing about the Rays.
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.