ST. PETERSBURG — This time, the Rays raced out of their dugout toward first base for the meeting of the Johnny Damon Celebration Club. The veteran had just delivered again Saturday, a two-out, two-strike, bases-loaded single in the ninth inning that capped another stirring comeback and gave the Rays another unlikely victory, 4-3 over the Twins.
Damon deserved to be the center of attention for a remarkable feat, the fifth straight game in which he delivered the winning run and second in three days on a walkoff hit. But as the party moved into the clubhouse, it became obvious how, suddenly, all the Rays have much to feel good about.
The winless first homestand, the 0-6 overall start and 1-8 mark, the injury to Evan Longoria and "retirement" of Manny Ramirez, all now seem like distant memories — "Three months?" manager Joe Maddon suggested; "Forever ago," Ben Zobrist said — as a fifth straight win pushed their record to 6-8.
"It feels great," starter Jeff Niemann said. "It feels like it should feel. We feel like we felt coming out of spring training. We know we have a good team. There's a lot of talent in this clubhouse, a lot of enthusiasm and excitement. It just shows that that start didn't put us down at all."
"This is great," Damon said. "This is exactly what we needed coming back home. We knew the crowds were getting a little scarce. Some doubts were creeping. But there's never been any doubt in here. I'm just proud with the intensity the guys have been playing with all nine and sometimes 10 innings."
Saturday had the look of missed opportunity. Niemann was pitching well enough, but they Rays weren't hitting enough to take advantage.
They trailed 3-1 in the eighth before a crowd of 16,428 that included a half-dozen Lightning players (guests of Twins DH Justin Morneau) and a loud contingent of friends and relatives of Twins centerfielder Denard Span. And they looked bad in doing so, going 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position and allowing a run when Span's liner skipped past centerfielder B.J. Upton for an RBI triple.
But they showed a spark in the eighth, when Reid Brignac led off with a single and Matt Joyce, still in the Tampa Chamber-chosen No. 3 spot, delivered a two-out RBI single, giving him three straight multi-hit games and a .524 average (11-for-21) over his past five.
Zobrist was the next to step up in the ninth, knocking a 1-and-0 fastball from Twins closer Joe Nathan — blowing consecutive saves for the first time since 2008 as he comes back after missing last season — over the rightfield fence to tie it.
Upton followed with a walk and after he stole second, Casey Kotchman walked. John Jaso flied out and pinch-hitter Elliot Johnson struck out, but when Super Sam Fuld walked — then joked later that he wanted to allow Damon the chance to star — Damon delivered, the first player since Troy Glaus in 2002 for the Angels to have the game-winning RBI in five straight, and the 11th walkoff hit of his career.
"It's a great way to build team confidence when you're winning like that," Zobrist said.
And something they feel could last.
"These kinds of games really teach you to keep playing nine innings," Maddon said. "You get to the point where you expect something good to happen as opposed to where you expect something bad to happen. We're at the point now where I think we expect something good to happen in the later part of the game if we're able to keep it close. And that's a great feeling to have within a team."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]sptimes.com.