ST. PETERSBURG — How Reid Brignac ended up in the middle of the celebration at home plate was certainly dramatic, his soaring home run leading off the 11th inning giving the Rays a thrilling 1-0 victory that pushed them past the Yankees and back atop the American League East.
How he was in position to provide such heroics, much less even in the game, was an intriguing subplot: an unexpected substitute when Carl Crawford was ejected in the ninth inning.
"It's weird how things happen," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "Sometimes the conspiracy of the world works in your favor."
For the Rays, it could turn out to be another of those moments, such as when Dan Johnson jumped out of a cab in Boston two years ago and into lore, with what, at least until Monday, was considered the most dramatic home run in franchise history.
For that to happen, the Rays (87-56) will need to finish the season where they are now: for just the second time in three months, ahead of the Yankees (87-57), who lost their season-high fourth straight.
"It feels great; we haven't been in first place in a while, they've been holding it down," Brignac said. "It's good to be back on top. … We want to end the year on top."
And to get there in such dramatic fashion, after an as-good-as-advertised pitching duel between David Price and CC Sabathia and the longest scoreless game in Tropicana Field history, and before a spirited but less-than-soldout crowd of 26,907, made it so much more memorable.
"It was kinda Frazier-Ali," Maddon said. "The Thrilla in Manila. It was all there."
Whether it was a showdown of the leading candidates for the AL Cy Young Award, or a preview of the opening of the League Championship Series, both Price and Sabathia were magnificent.
"It was kind of what everybody was expecting,'' Price said. "And that's what they got."
Price's line: 8 innings, 3 hits, 2 walks, 4 strikeouts, 114 pitches (73 for strikes).
Sabathia's line: 8 innings, 2 hits, 2, walks, 9 strikeouts, 119 pitches (77 for strikes).
The bottom line: Wow.
There were only five runners as far as second base when Price and Sabathia were on the mound. The first runner didn't get to third until the 10th inning, when Dioner Navarro got there. Of the eight hits, Brignac's was the only one that was more than a single.
"(Price) was good," Yankees catcher Jorge Posada said. "I thought our guy was better.''
Even though both teams are almost assured playoff berths, they played with the intensity and emotion of a postseason game. "That's what it was,'' Price said.
When Crawford burst out in rebuttal to umpire Tom Hallion calling him out for his third strikeout, the maneuvering started that led to the Rays winning the game.
The obvious replacement for Crawford was Matt Joyce, but Maddon, knowing the Yankees have only one left-hander in the bullpen and were shorthanded as well, had already determined he wanted to save Joyce to hit later in the game.
So as Maddon was on the field discussing the Crawford situation, bench coach Dave Martinez was already going over the options given the versatility they have, and told Brignac to get ready. Maddon and Martinez quickly talked, and decided to send Brignac out to play second and instead moved Sean Rodriguez to left, knowing Joyce likely would hit for him the next inning.
Maddon joked that Crawford did well in setting up Brignac, his close friend.
"We set him up nice, and he hit the home run and won it for us," Crawford said. "I don't think I would have did that tonight, I was struggling at the plate a little bit. I'm just happy for Reid, he's wanted to play real bad and he got a chance tonight and was able to come through for us."
For Brignac, who had started only two of the past 21 games, it couldn't have ended any better — his first walkoff hit in the major leagues, and his first shaving cream facial.
"An unbelievable feeling," he said. "You just feel like you're floating on clouds. I had a couple walkoffs in the minors, but nothing compares to this."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]