TORONTO — The pain of Friday's loss was still evident the morning after in the Rays clubhouse, certainly in how bruised and battered Elliot Johnson was from being thrown out at the plate trying to score the tying run.
But by Saturday afternoon, the Rays — stunningly — were going through the exact opposite experience, celebrating a thrilling 5-4 victory when centerfielder B.J. Upton threw out Toronto's tying run at the plate for the final out.
"That's walkoff plays at the plate, how about it, two days in a row," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "It feels much better when you're on this side of things."
The happy ending, the first under such circumstances in Rays history, capped an eventful afternoon. Jeff Niemann made a successful return to the mound then a concerning fourth-inning departure with what was described mysteriously only as "arm tightness," Matt Joyce reintroduced himself as a hitter with a two-run double and a homer and Fernando Rodney bailed out the bullpen on a rare bad day by battling to get five outs for his 40th save, and an interesting notation that came with it.
And the Rays actually won a one-run game, having lost their past seven and 11 of 12, while improving to 72-61, moving back to within 1½ games of the Orioles for the second wild-card spot and staying within 4½ games of the division-leading Yankees, whom they host starting Monday.
"I'm really proud of our guys," Maddon said. "We've lost some really harsh games over the last 10 days and we keep coming out and playing, keep believing to the very end."
And what an ending it was.
Rodney, not sharp in getting the final two outs of the eighth when Joel Peralta faltered, walked Omar Vizquel to open the ninth. A bunt and flyout left Vizquel on second with two outs, and he came around third as fast as a 45-year-old can when Colby Rasmus lined a single to center.
Upton knew he couldn't catch it, but he played the short hop off the tricky turf and unleashed a laser throw — "a 300-foot strike," Jays manager John Farrell called it — that was on line to catcher Jose Molina but up a bit.
"I just let it go," Upton said. "I knew I had a pretty good line, I was just hoping it wasn't too high for him. Luckily, it wasn't."
Molina, whom Maddon had just put in the game in part for his defense, took it from there, a textbook job of grabbing the ball and blocking Vizquel, who was trying to slide around him, off the plate, then using squatter's rights to keep him there as he applied the tag.
"He's got to make a good throw to give me a chance to tag him and I did. That's all there is to it," Molina said. "I was trying to stop him from scoring and I did, and we won the game."
Umpire Jordan Baker peered in to make sure Molina still had the ball and made the out call. Seconds later, Rodney did the same, a bit more emphatically, before shooting his celebratory imaginary arrow.
"Payback," Rodney said.
For most of the afternoon, it didn't seem like the game would come down to the end. Niemann, starting for the first time since his right leg was broken by a line drive May 14 on the same Rogers Centre mound, zipped through three innings. And the Rays took a 4-0 lead, on a homer by Ryan Roberts, a two-out double by Ben Zobrist then, with the bases loaded, a double by Joyce, who'd been in a 5-for-44 skid.
The Jays got two off J.P. Howell, who was admittedly unprepared to take over when Niemann left in the fourth, then after Joyce's eighth-inning homer made it 5-2, two off Peralta in the messy eighth.
The two games are the only this season in the majors, per Rays research, to end with the tying run thrown out at home, and they happened in an 18-hour span between the same teams. "Unheard of," Joyce said.
Not that they minded making this kind of history.
Said Maddon: "Fernando gets his 40th save and B.J. gets his first."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]