DETROIT — For eight innings Wednesday afternoon against Detroit ace Justin Verlander, the Rays didn't have much of anything, just a walk and a meager fifth-inning single on their way to what looked liked a certain defeat.
But by the end of the ninth inning, they had something special, an inspiring come-from-behind 4-2 victory over the Tigers that could become a signature moment in their season of great expectations.
"We're fighters until the end, that's what we're all about," starter James Shields said. "It's really good to see those signs early in the season this year. We didn't see that last year early in the season. Now we know what kind of team we have. We're going to fight one through nine. And that's good."
Realistically, they didn't show much fight early. Verlander, last year's Cy Young and MVP award winner, was in dazzling form, with only the two baserunners marring perfection, throwing just 81 pitches to get the first 24 outs. Despite a solid outing from Shields, the Rays' 2-0 deficit seemed huge.
"It's pretty easy," third baseman Evan Longoria said, "to just kind of roll over and die in that situation."
But not these Rays, at least not this day. They started the ninth with a pinch-hit single by Jeff Keppinger — on a curveball that buckled his knees — and ended up scoring four times, sending 10 to the plate in a sequence of can-you-top-this at-bats, chasing Verlander while pinning him with his first regular-season loss since July 15, a span of 14 starts.
"That's huge. That's a big comeback," Keppinger said. "He was cruising all game. He was going to throw the complete game right there and put us away. And he ended up losing the game."
Verlander was a co-conspirator, abandoning his off-speed pitches and going to pure heat in the ninth. While the 99 and 100 mph on the stadium board were impressive, especially for the ninth inning, they weren't nearly as effective, and the resulting loss of command worked to the Rays' advantage, including a wild pitch that scored their first run.
"I lost a little bit of my consistency that I had all day," Verlander said. "It's inexcusable. This loss rests solely on my shoulders today."
Several Rays put it there.
Keppinger's hit, on a 1-and-2 pitch, was key, since it gave them hope. "If he doesn't get on right there, I think ballgame is over," manager Joe Maddon said.
An out later, Desmond Jennings was next to deliver, fighting off a 100-mph fastball with a single to right that sent Keppinger to third. "The biggest hit in that whole inning," Ben Zobrist said.
Then Carlos Peña had a key at-bat, working back from 1-and-2 to draw a walk that ended with the wild pitch. And Longoria, singling in Jennings with the tying run and ending Verlander's day.
Next? How about Elliot Johnson, coming off the bench to face lefty Daniel Schlereth, falling behind 0-and-2 and drawing a walk to load the bases. The Tigers turned to closer Jose Valverde, and that didn't work either as Zobrist singled in two more.
"Phenomenal at-bats all the way through the lineup that last inning," Zobrist said.
But a win like this, which improved the Rays to 4-1, best in franchise history, is made of more than that.
"I think there's a confidence," said Maddon, admitting his thoughts drifted to last season's Game 162 comeback. "Once you've won, then you're confident that you can win again. Once you've been there, you feel you can get back there again. Before you've ever (played) as well as we have over the last couple of years, it's hard to imagine beating Verlander in the ninth inning the way we did today. It's almost impossible to imagine that."
"I like the word heart," Zobrist said. "Because it says a lot about all those things put together — determination, perseverance, just a not-give-up attitude. … We're going to do what we can do. This team, we just seem to have a lot of heart."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]bay.com.
Five games into the season, the Rays have rallied in the ninth to topple two of the game's best pitchers, Yankees closer Mariano Rivera and Tigers ace Justin Verlander.
Down 6-5, with Rivera 60-of-61 in saves against them, they tie it on Ben Zobrist's triple then, after loading the bases, win it on Carlos Peña's one-out walkoff single.
Down 2-0 and held to one hit, they rally for four runs, with four of five hitters reaching off Verlander (three hits and a walk) then Zobrist delivering a two-run single.