ST. PETERSBURG — Gabe Gross stood at his locker stall Saturday morning, engaged in a philosophical discussion with a 39-year-old man with a Mohawk.
The thrust: It's not a statement of individualism if everyone's doing it, but mostly Gross didn't want to line up in the showers like most of the rest of the Rays to have his hair shorn, team-building exercise or not. Besides, he asserted to closer Troy Percival, the Rays were a win from clinching their first-ever playoff berth with his 'do intact. What if a haircut jinxed it?
Such is the mythology of the Rays locker room in these times pitcher Scott Kazmir calls "magical." Whether they've placated the baseball spirits with their shaved heads, are watching the karmic slate finally balance after a decade or simply making their own way with talent and focus and determination, the Rays continued to exploit every opportunity in beating the Twins 7-2.
"That happens," manager Joe Maddon said of pennant race destiny and the odd circumstances behind the historic win. "Every team that gets to this point, wins it all, normally reflects on it and sees things just like that."
The Rays began manifesting their destiny in the third against Twins starter Kevin Slowey when Eric Hinske was apparently thrown out by a wide margin attempting to steal second, but ball four was ruled on the pitch to Akinori Iwamura. Two batters later, first baseman Carlos Pena — continuing a week of outrageous good fortune — apparently fouled out to catcher Joe Mauer, but his towering pop-up struck a bar just inside the B ring near the ceiling, making it a dead ball. A few pitches later he laced a two-run double to right-center for a 2-0 lead.
"That moment right there, it really indicated that something special might be going on," Maddon said.
A loose ball from the Red Sox bullpen had saved a key Pena at-bat in the ninth inning of a win Tuesday, and Friday he was rightly awarded a homer on the first-ever reversal by instant replay.
"We're a big believer in momentum, we believe you focus on things," Pena said. "It creates a synergy that works in our favor."
Pena's synergy — or fundamentals — helped squelch the Twins' best chance to change momentum in the fourth inning against starter Kazmir, who rallied from the worst outing of his career to earn his 12th win with six shutout innings.
Down 2-0, the Twins loaded the bases when Kazmir hit Michael Cuddyer with an 0-and-2 pitch. But a batter later, Fernando Perez gloved a Delmon Young flyout to centerfield and gunned a throw home that Pena cut off and whipped to Jason Bartlett at second base to nab Justin Morneau for a double play. Kazmir struck out former Ray Brendan Harris to end the threat.
The Rays added three runs in the fifth to lead 5-0 on a run-scoring double by Evan Longoria, a Dioner Navarro single and a bases-loaded walk to Rocco Baldelli.
Perez homered in the sixth and Cliff Floyd in the seventh for a 7-0 lead. The Twins scored twice in the ninth off Percival — one unearned — before Trever Miller finished things.
Perez, a late-season callup who had succumbed to the shaver just in case, was amazed to watch the culture shift, whatever caused it.
"Good teams seem to get the luck," he said. "A really good team will make an inferior team lay down in certain situations, and since I've been up here, I've seen a lot of that. That's an amazing feat, to say that we're a feared team. It's really quite amazing."