ST. PETERSBURG — First, Rays manager Joe Maddon took the bat out of Tigers Triple Crown threat Miguel Cabrera's hands with some of his typically unorthodox strategy. Then when Cabrera came up again in the ninth inning with the bases loaded, Rays third baseman Evan Longoria took matters into his own hands, fearlessly starting a risky game-ending double play that sealed the 3-2 victory.
"I'm just glad it worked out the way it did," Longoria said.
A lot worked in the Rays' favor Tuesday, despite losing centerfielder B.J. Upton for at least a few days with a left ankle sprain, as James Shields worked out of several jams and into the seventh for his first home win since April 28, former Tigers Carlos Peña and Matt Joyce had big hits to beat ace Justin Verlander and the Yankees lost to Cleveland, slicing the AL East lead to two games.
And the reason was because of how things worked out when Cabrera — whom Shields called "probably the best hitter in all of baseball right now" — was at the plate.
After the Rays (61-38) took a 2-0 lead on Peña's 22nd homer in the first, lost it on a sloppy play by Jason Bartlett in the sixth then went right back ahead 3-2 on Carl Crawford's running and Joyce's broken-bat double, it got really interesting before 19,843 at Tropicana Field.
With runners on first and second and two outs in the seventh, Maddon went for the old intentionally-walk-the-guy-to-load-the-bases move, going against tradition by having lefty Randy Choate put on Cabrera, advancing the tying run to third and the go-ahead run to scoring position.
"There was a bag open — it doesn't matter which one it is," Maddon said. "I just thought, this is not that difficult."
Then Maddon went even further, bringing in right-hander Grant Balfour to face left-handed Brennan Boesch — but knowing the rookie was hitting .429 vs. lefties and .270 vs. right-handers — and Balfour struck him out on three pitches.
The Rays took the 3-2 lead into the ninth, but closer Rafael Soriano didn't have much luck. Austin Jackson tucked a two-strike double just inside the rightfield line with one out, Will Rhymes blooped a single and Johnny Damon capped a 10-pitch battle with a walk to load the bases and bring Cabrera to the plate.
Soriano, having thrown 27 pitches and unable to locate his fastball, worked to a 2-and-2 count and tried a slider. Cabrera bounced it slowly toward third.
Longoria charged and rather than take the safe out at the plate turned and fired to second, where rookie second baseman Reid Brignac withstood the hard-charging Damon and turned a walkoff double play.
"It's amazing what kind of play they did," Damon said.
Longoria said he thought about his options before the play and made the split-second decision to go for two, with the obvious risk of the tying run scoring.
"That was what my instincts told me to do," Longoria said. "I just felt more comfortable throwing it to second and trusting Brig to turn that double play."
Not everyone on the field was as sure.
"I was a little scared when he went to second base," Soriano said. "I said, 'Oh my God what happened?' It was not an easy out."
Brignac was a little surprised, too: "I thought he was going to go home at first, but when he turned a little bit I knew he coming to me. And I was very happy he did."
So was Maddon, who lauded not only the play but the fearless thought process of his Gold Glove third baseman.
"If you're not concerned about making a mistake, you do what Longo did," Maddon said. "If you're worried about making a mistake, you take the safe way out. I love the fact that we never take the safe way out."