ST. PETERSBURG — For Rays backup catcher Shawn Riggans, the return to home plate was easier — and far sweeter — than the departure.
Riggans, struck in the chest with a mid 90s fastball in Sunday's 10th inning, said he felt like he was "going to die." He fell, having temporarily lost his breath, and a hush enveloped the packed Trop.
Manager Joe Maddon sprinted from the top dugout step, telling the last position player left on his lineup card to stay down.
But in a symbolic moment in the Rays' improbable 6-5 come-from-behind win that capped a three-game sweep of the Tigers, Riggans got back up and walked to first, feeling "discomfort with every breath." The Rays had two runners on, were down by a run but never felt out of it.
"We don't quit," Riggans said.
Five batters and two walks later, Riggans walked across home plate for the winning run, having capped the wildest of the Rays' eight walkoff wins. It was, veteran reliever Trever Miller called it, "one of the best games I've ever seen," and they kept the 33,438 in attendance consistently on the edge of their seats.
In overcoming two deficits, the Rays also overcame a rare blown save by Troy Percival and an injury to shortstop Jason Bartlett and snapped Miller's major-league record for consecutive appearances without a decision.
Miller got the victory for the Rays (66-44), who matched their win total from last season, staying three games ahead of the Red Sox and 51/2 ahead of the Yankees in the American League East. And to Miller, the way they won showed why they can be there to stay.
"I think this says, 'We're ready,' " Miller said. "It's what's gonna happen in August and September. I've been around teams that have made the push before, and you can't ever give in from now until it's over. … You gotta keep pushing, keep digging, no matter if you're down 10 or not, because every game is enormous right now."
The Rays didn't give up after Tigers rookie right-hander Armando Galarraga carried a one-hitter into the seventh; B.J. Upton answered by doubling and scoring in the bottom half.
The Rays didn't give up in the eighth, when the Tigers' Gary Sheffield ripped a 428-foot homer off unflappable reliever Grant Balfour (who hadn't surrendered a hit in nearly a month); they answered with Eric Hinske's solo homer and Upton's two-run blast, his first in 26 games, in the bottom half for a one-run lead.
They didn't give up after Percival, having converted his previous 15 save opportunities, gave up two homers for the first time in over eight years. When Percival left, Carlos Pena overheard him tell Miller, "Hold them right there, cause we're gonna win it."
They completed the feat with an unconventional version of, as Pena calls it, "small ball." Willy Aybar led off with a walk against Tigers closer Fernando Rodney. Bartlett was hit on his right index finger on a failed bunt attempt and had to leave the game. Riggans, who replaced Bartlett in the at-bat, got hit on the next pitch. "As long as I'm gonna (get) hit like that," he said, "we might as well do it for a reason."
Riggans moved to second on Akinori Iwamura's sacrifice and, after a walk to Upton, to third on Carl Crawford's RBI single that loaded the bases. After Rodney's 3-and-2 pitch to Pena was low and inside, Riggans added another chapter to a coming-of-age season.
"These guys need to realize how special it is right now, what we're doing," Miller said. "This turnaround is unprecedented, it's historical. … Hopefully we can lift some trophies here."
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.