BALTIMORE — As Sean Rodriguez sat on the bench for the first six innings Sunday, it hurt just to take a breath.
Something was wrong on the left side of his chest, a bruised or strained muscle, enough to have kept the usually stubborn infielder out of the Rays lineup. But an early lead was slipping away, and when bench coach Dave Martinez came down to ask him if could go in to upgrade their defense at third for the final three innings, Rodriguez smiled and shook his head yes, and no, and yes, and no.
Martinez then made what may have been the biggest decision of a long day that ended with Rodriguez preserving a dramatic 9-8 win over the Orioles that improved the Rays to 21-14 and snapped their three-game skid.
"I think he was just kidding," Martinez said. "And I said, 'Well, you're in there.' ''
"I could feel it the whole time," Rodriguez said. "But it was good enough where I could play."
The Orioles cut the lead to 7-6 in the seventh thanks to some more sloppy Tampa Bay defense. The Rays opened it back to 9-6 with back-to-back homers by Elliot Johnson and Ben Zobrist in the eighth. The Orioles got one back in the eighth and were pushing for more in the ninth as closer-designate Fernando Rodney was trying to save James Shields' AL-leading sixth win.
After a leadoff single and a strikeout, Rodriguez was suddenly targeted for action.
He dived to his left, landing on his chest and clearly exacerbating the pain, to snare J.J. Hardy's grounder but could manage only a weak toss to second for a forceout. "Getting the ball to second wasn't very routine at that point," he said.
A walk put the tying run on with two outs, then Rodriguez charged in, made a barehanded grab of Adam Jones' bouncer and threw while falling down. But the ball sailed a bit, with Hardy scoring, the tying run moving to third and the winning run to second on an error that was charged to first baseman Carlos Peña.
"That play by itself, the fact that there was a possibility, it just baffles me. It was amazing," Peña said. "I saw Sean grab that ball in the air and at the same time throw it while not being able to plant — that's impossible. It kind of defies physics."
Rodriguez was clearly uncomfortable, but there was one more thing he had to do.
As Matt Wieters slapped a ball down the third-base line that would have scored both runs, Rodriguez went to his right to glove it, fell to one knee as his back foot slipped, steadied himself with both hands, then got up and unleashed a one-hop throw that Peña scooped for the final out.
"Sean, to me, has to be one of if not the best defensive player I've ever seen, the athleticism that he's got," Peña said. "He's coming in, he fell, he threw it unbalanced, off-balance, and I was able to come up with it to seal the deal. It was very exciting to watch."
Even in celebration, it was obvious how much pain Rodriguez was in as he gingerly exchanged congratulations.
"He looked like he was hurting a little bit," Johnson said. "You could see he was obviously giving us what he's got. And obviously it's more than what most people have, whatever he's at — 80 percent? 50 percent? I don't know what it is.
"But without him over there, I'm not sure what the turnout would have been."
There was a certain irony to winning on a dazzling defensive play because of how poorly they had been playing, making a team record-tying five errors on Saturday, and 30 for the season, more than 40 percent of their total for all of 2011 (73).
But with a solid start from Shields, some quality relief work and a few signs of life from the offense (Peña with two doubles, Johnson and Zobrist with three hits each), good glove was the missing element. Zobrist made a diving catch to end the eighth, then Rodriguez took over in the ninth.
"We needed that," manager Joe Maddon said. "That's who we are."
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com.