ST. PETERSBURG — The celebration over the Rays' latest fantastic finish was somewhat muted Monday night.
They had just beaten the Mariners 3-2 in 12 innings, with Elliot Johnson, of all people, singling in the winning run to cap their surprisingly sturdy April with a 15-8 record, but it was the loss of third baseman Evan Longoria — potentially for weeks — that resulted in the tempered mood.
Longoria left the game after the third inning and left the stadium with crutches due to what manager Joe Maddon described as soreness behind his left knee, seemingly the result of an awkward slide into second on an inning-ending steal attempt.
He will undergo tests, likely including an MRI exam, today to determine exactly what is wrong (knee, hamstring, etc.) and how long he will be out.
Though Maddon described it "kind of a day-to-day gig right now," the sense in the Rays clubhouse was it could be an extended absence.
"I think obviously we're all worried about him," centerfielder B.J. Upton said. "We don't know exactly what's going on … but anytime you lose a guy like that in your lineup, it's a big blow."
Longoria is, obviously, the centerpiece of the lineup — "arguably your best player," Maddon said — hitting .329 with four homers and a team-high 19 RBIs. In the short term, Maddon said the Rays would use Johnson — who took at third over Monday — or Jeff Keppinger in his absence. The Triple-A third baseman is Matt Mangini.
Riding high after taking two of three over the weekend from the red-hot Rangers in Texas, the Rays came home tied for first place in the American League East and looking to cap a splendid first month … and drew only 9,458, their smallest crowd at the Trop in nearly five years. The last smaller? You have to go back to Sept. 4, 2007, for a gathering against Baltimore of 9,112.
Most of night was filled with a dazzling duel between Rays starter Jeremy Hellickson and M's ace Felix Hernandez, each allowing just a single run on his shift. The Mariners took the lead in the 11th on a bad pitch by Wade Davis that Jesus Montero hit out of the park, but the Rays came back to tie it, Luke Scott leading off with a double then Upton scoring pinch-runner Jeff Keppinger with a broken-bat single.
The Rays started their winning rally when Ben Zobrist, batting leadoff with Desmond Jennings not starting, drew a one-out walk from Brandon League. Carlos Peña followed with a single to right, Zobrist stopping at second given Ichiro Suzuki's arm.
Johnson, hitting in Longoria's spot, had failed twice earlier to knock in a run, bunting foul on strike three — on a play called by Maddon — in the fifth with Zobrist on third, then striking out in the 10th with Zobrist again on third.
But this time, Johnson swatted a single to shallow left off League and Zobrist raced home from second, sliding in safely just ahead of Chone Figgins' throw. It was Johnson's first RBI of the season.
"It's fantastic," Johnson said. "Thank goodness I got the third opportunity and I came through. Obviously disappointed with the first two that they didn't work out for me."
It was fitting, or ironic, or something that Johnson, batting in Longoria's spot, got so many chances, first to fail, then ultimately to succeed.
"How does that happen? Why does that happen?" Maddon said. "That comes from support. That only happens because you continue to show support for Elliot. I'm not talking about me, I'm talking about the whole group. … And that doesn't happen everywhere."
The game was moving so crisply due to the starters that it looked like it would be an early night.
Hellickson went seven innings, allowing one run on six hits while striking out seven.
The only run he allowed?
On a home run by catcher Miguel Olivo with one out in the second, on a 1-and-0 pitch.
Hernandez was equally tough.
He went eight innings, allowing one run on five hits, walking four but striking out nine.
The only run he allowed?
A single by Sean Rodriguez with one out in the second, scoring Brandon Allen, who had walked and gone to third on Upton's double.
The Rays have learned to play without Longoria, who missed 26 games during the first month of last season with an oblique strain, and also 30 games with a fractured right wrist during his 2008 rookie season.
"It's not going to be one guy," Upton said. "We have a good enough group around here to find a way to win for the time being. … You definitely never want to do without him. Missing him in the lineup is big. But I think we know how to do it."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]