ST. PETERSBURG — Their first baseman was in the hospital being checked for chest pains. Their top setup man wasn't available to pitch. Their cleanup hitter was limping all afternoon with his sore right foot wrapped.
And with Boston leading in Baltimore, their hopes were fading.
But the Rays, after adding a triple play to their remarkable story, rallied again, beating the Yankees 5-3.
And by tonight, they could be in the midst of a most unanticipated champagne celebration.
"I hope so," manager Joe Maddon said. "It would be outstanding. I'm a good partier."
Casey Kotchman passed all tests and was released from the hospital. Joel Peralta hopes to be back in the bullpen tonight. And Tampa native Matt Joyce's foot wasn't nearly as sore — "It felt great running around the bases" — after his three-run seventh-inning homer pushed the Rays from behind to the final day of the season still tied with the Red Sox for the AL wild card.
If the Rays (90-71) win and the Sox lose in Baltimore, the Rays — after the appropriate celebration — are headed off to open the playoffs Friday in Texas or Detroit. If they both win, or lose, there will be a one-game playoff at 4:07 Thursday at Tropicana Field. If the Rays lose and the Red Sox win, the Rays go home frustrated by coming so far and falling short.
"We really want to take it in our hands," Joyce said. "We want to control our destiny."
They'll put the ball in the hands of lefty flamethrower David Price, against a Yankees fill-in starter who manager Joe Girardi said only will be named by 7:10, and a team presumably much more interested in getting home to be ready for its own playoff opener.
Price, who has pitched in all three of the Rays' postseason elimination games, said he welcomed the opportunity to pitch the most important of their 2,265 regular-season games.
"Absolutely," he said. "Why wouldn't I? … Obviously it's going to be the biggest game for the Rays in 2011 and one of the biggest games for the Rays in team history. Hopefully we can come in here and play some good baseball and get a win."
They found a way Tuesday, none more stunning than the triple play they turned in the sixth — down a run, after walking the bases loaded in the hopes of getting two outs — that dramatically turned the momentum of the game. "You're kind of in uh-oh mind frame," Joyce said. "That just changed everything."
The six outs they got from rookie relievers Jake McGee and Brandon Gomes in Peralta's absence to bridge the gap from starter Jeremy Hellickson to closer Kyle Farnsworth weren't bad, either. "How about it?" Maddon said.
Nor was seeing Joyce, the Armwood High grad, hobbling out of the dugout for a curtain call from the raucous Tropicana Field crowd of 22,820 after his dramatic blast off former teammate Rafael Soriano, who walked B.J. Upton and Evan Longoria to start the inning. It was the Rays' only hit of the night with a runner in scoring position, having gone 0-for-7 before and 0-for-2 after.
"I think that definitely tops any kind of big hit that I've ever had," Joyce said. "To be in the situation we're in, with two games left, we're down a run and the season's pretty much riding on the line, that was one of the most thrilling hits I've ever been a part of."
Maddon sees it all as more reason to believe they can complete their dramatic dash (15-8 since Sept. 3) — and take advantage of Boston's historic collapse — to become the first team to make the postseason after being nine games out in September.
"All the indicators are there, let's just keep pushing," Maddon said. "When those things kinda show up, it really promotes even more fight. There's more of a believability about the moment."
Or, as Joyce said, "there's definitely something special about this team."
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com.