And so it comes down to the final day. Of course it does. After all the surges, after all the slips, after a season that reads like pulp fiction, how else would you expect this Rays season to end? It will come down to the final game for a playoff spot, and perhaps the final out, because anything else would not make sense. Not after the Rays' historic comeback. Not after the Red Sox's monumental collapse. Not after the Improbable Dream. This season has always been destined for the final heartbeat, the way the movies always come down to the final showdown in the street, or the final sword fight on the walls of the castle, or the final farewell at the airport. Seasons such as this one do not end in Game 144 or in Game 148. They go the full 162. Or in this case, maybe 163. "If you are scripting this one," said Rays owner Stu Sternberg, "you script it to the end."
Tuesday, the featured player was Matt Joyce, or as they may soon refer to him in Boston, Matty Bleeping Joyce. It was Joyce's three-run homer in the bottom of the seventh inning against the Yankees that allowed the Rays to avert disaster Tuesday night and win 5-3.
At the time, the Rays were staring at trouble. They had fallen behind the Yankees 3-2, and up in Baltimore, the Red Sox were having one of those rare recent September nights when they were winning instead of clawing at their necks to stop the choking.
If the Rays had let this game get away, no one was going to be talking about their nine-game comeback in the wild-card race; they were going to be talking about the need for another one. Even considering the way September has gone, a Rays win and a Red Sox loss would have been a lot to ask.
Then Joyce swung, and the ball sailed deep and crisp, and it had the same affect as putting cardiac paddles to a team's heart. This time Joyce not only won a game, he simplified a race.
Win today and the Rays are guaranteed a postseason. Win today, and even if the Red Sox win, the teams play a playoff game here Thursday. Win today and the Red Sox have to keep up or go home.
Lose today, and the Red Sox still have to win to eliminate the Rays.
Good news for the Rays?
Joyce gets to bat again today.
For Joyce, this was a greatest-hits moment. Even if he plays this game for 20 more seasons, even if he becomes a star, this is bound to be one of his top 10 moments.
For a team scrambling from behind, moving a boulder a half roll at the time, such memories are the important part. Every day, it has to be somebody. It has to be Desmond Jennings or Matt Moore or B.J. Upton. It has to be Evan Longoria or Johnny Damon or Ben Zobrist. Somebody. Anybody. It's like a game of Clue. This time it was Joyce in the seventh with a bat.
More than anything, this is the legacy of these Rays. Tampa Bay has had more dangerous offenses, and it has had better bullpens. On the other hand, these Rays don't want to go home. They keep scrapping no matter how the standings read, no matter what the scoreboard says, no matter what the columnists write. Remember when everyone wanted to bury them three weeks ago? Turns out, they were like Wesley in The Princess Bride. They were only "mostly dead."
Today the Rays have a chance to live all the way to the postseason.
For the Rays, there has never been a more dramatic week, or a more miraculous month, than this one. True, the Rays went to the World Series in 2008, a season manager Joe Maddon compares to a first child. They had the best record in the game in 2010.
Never, however, have they fought from behind like this. In a season of low expectations, in a year that was supposed to have been lost after the Rays let their top eight highest-paid players leave, they have made themselves a team to be admired. They have won 90 games, and who saw that coming? They are on the brink of the playoffs, and who called that? A win today would put them within six wins of last year's total, and considering the defections, how does that make sense?
This is the beauty of the wild card playoff spot, no matter what the purists say. For the eighth consecutive season, the playoffs are on the line for someone on the final day. Five times it has been a wild card race. What's wrong with that?
For crying out loud, isn't baseball supposed to be played to the final out, to the final heartbeat?
Before the game, Maddon was talking about being a 10-year-old boy in Pennsylvania and how the men who were replacing the roof of his family's home were Yankees fans. He talked about all the emotions he felt as his beloved Cardinals surged from behind to catch the Phillies. When he talks about it, his voice sounds as if he is describing a comeback that happened last year.
Who knows? Maybe somewhere in Tampa Bay, a 10-year-old boy is paying attention himself. Maybe he dreams of being Matt Joyce. Maybe he thinks about helping a team salvage a season such as this one.
This has been a mind-boggling run for the Rays and a mind-altering slide for the Red Sox. For the next 50 years, some manager whose team is behind 10 games in September will talk about the possibilities, and about this Rays team. These Rays have given hope to a lot of teams to come.
Today, all they need to do finish the job.
Win and leave Boston to the crabs.