ST. PETERSBURG — So many things had gone so wrong for the Rays so many times over the past few weeks. So why should they have thought any different Thursday when, with a chance to score the go-ahead run in the eighth inning, Wil Myers sent a ball slicing right toward the rightfield line.
Evan Longoria looked back optimistically from second base. Manager Joe Maddon leaned forward tense in the dugout. And Myers ran down the line, all unsure if it would land fair or foul.
"I was hoping," Myers said.
The ball landed inside the stripe, by about 6 inches.
"I would say 'Hallelujah' is a pretty good word right there," Maddon said. "We've been fighting so hard for this moment, and we got it tonight."
Longoria scored, Fernando Rodney got them through a tense ninth, and the Rays had reason to smile as they headed out for a late-night flight to Minneapolis with a 4-3 win over the Red Sox.
"It's tough to really not dwell on those moments because we've had it seems like an infinite number of plays or balls that were hit or pitches that were made that could have gone in a different direction," Longoria said. "For one to be able to fall tonight in a crucial game for us hopefully turns the tide."
Longoria said he considered Thursday "basically a must-win game." The Rays had lost 13 of their previous 17 and all but squandered their lead in what officially is the tightest wild-card race since the 1995 expansion of the playoff field, as five teams started the day within two games of each other.
The Rays improved to 79-66, and while cutting their deficit behind Boston in the American League East to 8½ games hardly mattered, they did maintain, and even gain, a bit of space in the wild-card field. With 17 games to go, the Rays lead the Yankees by one game, the Indians by 1½ and the Orioles and Royals by 2½. The Rays are two behind the Rangers for the first wild card.
"We needed a win bad," Myers said. "With the wild card getting tight, we needed a win here. We didn't want to get swept by those guys. And we've got to keep winning, We don't need just one and lose tomorrow. We need to win that series (in Minnesota) and keep it rolling."
The score was tied 3-3 when Longoria, switching during a second straight at-bat from a bat he thought might be slightly cracked to a different one, doubled with one out to set up Myers' dramatic moment.
Jeremy Hellickson, looking strong with a fastball that hit 93 mph a few times, worked into the sixth, allowing solo homers to Jarrod Saltalamacchia (ending his 0-for-21) and David Ortiz, and an RBI double to Stephen Drew.
The Rays got three the hard way. Longoria, who has four extra-base hits the past two games after one in 15, tripled and scored on a Myers single; James Loney doubled in David DeJesus and Desmond Jennings homered.
But there was reason for concern, as the Rays continued to struggle with runners in scoring position, though their 3-for-11 night was relatively robust.
Also, a moment in the sixth when it looked like, once again, things weren't going to go their way. With Myers on first, Jennings laced a ball up the middle that struck off starter Jake Peavy's arm and caromed right to third baseman Xander Bogaerts, who got the force out at second.
And again in the ninth, when, with one out, Drew rolled a ball that straddled the third-base line and ended up fair for an infield single, though Rodney navigated.
"A ball that goes foul and becomes fair, that's always a concern," Maddon said. "But honestly my thought is at that point, it's not happening tonight. That's it. It ain't going to happen tonight."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]tampabay.com. Follow him on Twitter at @TBTimes_Rays.