ST. PETERSBURG — Of all the come-from-behind victories in Joe Maddon's three-year reign, Wednesday's wild walkoff was "probably the most exciting."
And, to a certain extent, the most rewarding.
It wasn't just that the Rays scored six with no outs in the ninth, capped by a Carlos Pena three-run homer, to win 10-7 and clinch their first series victory against Cleveland in three years.
It was how they did it. And, who came through.
On a day when All-Star left-hander Scott Kazmir didn't last five innings, Carl Crawford sat with a sore left hamstring and B.J. Upton was benched for not hustling on a grounder the night before, the Rays went with an imaginative lineup: Ben Zobrist making his first big-league start in center, Willy Aybar in his third pro start at shortstop, Jason Bartlett as designated hitter and Gabe Gross (.216 vs. left-handers) starting against left-hander Jeremy Sowers.
But in the end, it came down to two huge hustle plays by Zobrist and Akinori Iwamura, help from an overused bullpen and another clutch at-bat from Gross, the Rays' walkoff king who delivered the tying homer in the ninth. The Rays (68-45) have won nine of 12, remain three games ahead of the Red Sox in the AL East and continue to feel, as Pena conceded, that they're "for real."
"You have to be able to win in creative ways to play in the last game of the season," Maddon said. "It's not always going to be perfect, it's not always going to be rosy. You're going to have your difficulties, you're going to have your moments. But you saw the group on the field today, (and) every one of those guys, I knew they were going to play their butts off."
The Rays did have their difficulties. Kazmir struggled with his command, scattering nine hits and five runs through just 41/3, his shortest outing since May 4, when he went four in his first start since coming off the disabled list. He has lasted six innings in two of his past 10 starts and said he's simply trying to do too much, "overstriding as opposed to staying within myself."
But as they've done all season, Kazmir's teammates picked him up. There was the bullpen, which Maddon is concerned is overworked after a Rays starter failed to last six innings for the fifth time in seven games. J.P. Howell pitched 22/3 and Trever Miller 11/3, and closer Troy Percival got two outs in the ninth..
There was Bartlett, who missed the past two games with a bruised right index finger, starting the ninth-inning rally with his second double of the game. Two batters later, Gross, who has a club-record-tying three walkoff hits, crushed an Edward Mujica pitch 437 feet to tie it. "I hit it as far as I could hit it," he said.
Iwamura, called out a few weeks ago by Maddon for not hustling, delivered a spark by beating reliever Masahide Kobayashi to first on an infield hit (much like Zobrist did in the fifth). Zobrist walked before Pena hit a first-pitch fastball over the centerfield fence. He pumped his fist rounding the bases, leaped into the mosh pit at home plate before jumping into Gross' outstretched arms.
"You can label players all you want, 'This guy is a great player, this guy is a regular,' " Pena said. "But on this team, everyone is the same."
And so, it seems, are the results.
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.