Tuesday, January 16, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Rays stay alive to force Game 4 against Red Sox

ST. PETERSBURG — They scare you to death. They frustrate you beyond belief. They give you indigestion, hypertension and ulcers all at the same time.

But it sure is fun, isn't it?

Some nights they make you scream at the television, throw the remote and bite your pillow.

But doggone it, how can you not love them?

The Tampa Bay Rays have become our favorite nightly reality show, more unpredictable than the Kardashians and harder to understand than Honey Boo Boo.

And you simply can't take your eyes off them.

The show will go on at least another night.

And tonight you'll be there with your popcorn and a cold drink on one side of the TV tray and a bottle of antacid on the other.

You'll yell. You'll cheer. You'll watch through the cracks of your fingers.

And you'll love every gut-wrenching, heart-pounding second of it.

This is what the Rays do. This is who they are.

They are a good team, not a great one. They can be incredibly fun but terribly inconsistent.

When they win, you love them. When they lose, you curse them.

And on nights like Monday, you can't help but admire them.

In yet another do-or-die game, the Rays did.

They did stop your hearts. They did thrill you.

They did win.

Jose Lobaton, the backup catcher who didn't enter the game until a few minutes before becoming the star, cracked a two-out homer in the bottom of the ninth inning to give the Rays a 5-4 victory over the Red Sox in Game 3 of the American League Division Series before a sellout crowd of 33,675 at Tropicana Field.

The Rays have a pulse. They're now down two games to one in the best-of-five series. Not an ideal spot, but they're alive. Not promising, but certainly not hopeless.

Lobaton, treated with ice cream every time he wins a game, smashed a pitch into the Rays' tank in right-centerfield to keep this improbable Rays season above water for at least another day.

How did he do it?

"It's the ice cream," Lobaton said.

No, really. How did he do it?

"He got the head of the bat on it," Rays manager Joe Maddon said, "and the rest is Rays history."

Know what Rays history should come with? A seat belt and an air-sick bag.

They might not be the best team in baseball. They might not win this series. Heck, they might not win another game. But they've provided Tampa Bay with more thrills than you can possibly expect from a baseball team that checks the seat cushions for extra change to pay its players.

"Listen," Maddon said after the game, "we've been through a lot of stuff around here for the last several years. That ranks right up there with the best stuff, obviously."

Midway through Monday's game, the Rays were in trouble. This game looked over, and along with it, the series and the season.

After losing two games — badly and embarrassingly, I might add — in Boston, the Rays were up against the wall for the fourth time in the past week.

Really, it's stunning that there is even a Game 4 tonight.

Four times in the past eight days, the Rays faced a game that, had they lost, their season would have been over.

They won at Toronto. They won at Texas. They won at Cleveland.

And then came Monday, this time before a home crowd but against a team way better than the Blue Jays, Rangers and Indians.

"We don't want to lose," Lobaton said. "We never give up."

They trailed 3-0 going to the bottom of the fifth. Vultures were circling on the season. Finally, it seemed, the Rays were out of miracles.

It was time to search for boxes to pack up for the offseason. That's when birthday boy Evan Longoria, born 28 years ago Monday, opened up a present of his own making, smashing a three-run homer to tie the score and give the Rays hope.

"It was a changeup that just stayed up enough," Longoria said.

Of course, you weren't surprised, were you? After all, Longoria seems to wait for the most dramatic and desperate moments to play superstar.

"We've come to expect a bit from him in those particular moments," Maddon said.

The Rays took the lead in the eighth at 4-3 and were three outs away from a win with their closer on the mound.

But come on, these are the Rays. You didn't expect it to be THAT easy, right? The Rays don't do easy.

They take the long way home, through the intersection of Nerve-Racking and Close Your Eyes.

Ace relief pitcher Fernando Rodney, a human roller coaster, yielded a run in the ninth to tie the score and you could sense the end of the season just up around the bend.

But Lobaton stepped up to the plate and kept the season alive with one swing of the bat.

"You can talk about the last game of the season … and this whole week working up to (Monday)," Maddon said. "And this game was even more dramatic than the other games we've already won. It was really an incredible day for the Rays."

The best part of all? It wasn't the last day.

Don't you just love it?

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