ST. PETERSBURG — Before B.J. Upton came to bat in the ninth inning Friday night, veteran closer Troy Percival shared a few words:
"Let's play Rays baseball," he told Upton. "Just keep scrapping like we did all game."
For the second straight night, the Rays had to dig themselves out of a huge hole. This time, they overcame a seven-run deficit and made history doing it.
The fans chanted "B.J. Upton!" as the struggling leadoff hitter came to bat in a tie game, and Upton had them on their feet after a walkoff homer to left on a 3-and-2 pitch, lifting the Rays to an improbable 8-7 win over the Indians in front of 25,827 at Tropicana Field.
"It felt a lot like last year," Ben Zobrist said. "That's something we want to continue. I don't know now many games like that we won last year, to have that feeling again, I think that's a huge confidence builder."
It was the largest deficit the Rays (17-20) have overcome in a victory in the club's 12-season history, having won after trailing by six five times (including once in their World Series run last season).
Yes, for one night, 2009 > 2008.
And the Rays hope that the win can help them recapture the familiar magic — and fight — they have yet to show consistently so far this season.
"It was huge, huge," catcher Dioner Navarro said. "It says a lot about us. It says a lot about this team. Maybe this is a wake-up call? Maybe this is the win that we needed to start rolling."
The comeback began in the fourth, after starter Scott Kazmir was pulled from a start in which he gave up seven runs on 10 hits (the second-highest total of his career). J.P Howell said that a few of the relievers in the bullpen were saying in the early innings, "We need a walkoff or something," he said. "And there it was."
The Rays started to show some life in the bottom of the fourth with a three-run rally that symbolized the night's comeback (manufacturing runs, grinding out at-bats and doing the little things right).
Upton led off with a double, stole third and scored on a single by Carlos Peña. Evan Longoria then hustled to score on the same play, thanks to a throwing error by rightfielder Shin-Soo Choo. Willy Aybar added an RBI single as well.
In the eighth, Zobrist ripped a solo homer to tie the score (his 11th homer in his past 33 games) to set up Upton's heroics.
"Right place, right time," Zobrist said.
But the relievers were also heroes. The group has been overburdened lately, but stepped up. There was long reliever Lance Cormier, whom manager Joe Maddon has labeled the bullpen MVP for racking up innings. There was Percival, who threw a scoreless inning, and Dan Wheeler, who escaped a ninth-inning jam (two on, two outs).
Percival led a group, including J.P. Howell, Kazmir and Cormier back into the dugout in the ninth inning, to "show them this is a team thing — we have to feel it."
Zobrist said they felt it in the dugout when Upton came to bat.
"You're thinking, 'This is it, we're going to win it,' " he said. "I could already see the ball go into the stands. And then, right there, 3-2 (count), he does it."
Said Maddon: "You just have to keep believing, for those with short memories. Our guys have a lot of heart."
The Rays' 8-7 come-from-behind victory Friday was the largest in team history (seven runs). Their previous best was digging out of a six-run hole, which they've done five times.
5/15/2009 vs. Indians (trailed 7-0, won 8-7)
9/24/2008 at Orioles (trailed 6-0, won 11-6)
4/07/2006 at Blue Jays (trailed 6-0, won 9-7)
4/08/2003 vs. Orioles (trailed 6-0, won 8-7)
8/22/2001 vs. Orioles (trailed 7-1, won 11-10)
4/13/1998 vs. Twins (trailed 6-0, won 13-12)