CHICAGO — Thursday could not have unfolded better for the Rays. Two of the teams ahead of them in the AL wild-card race, the A's, who hold the second spot, and the Angels, lost. And the other, the wild-card-leading Orioles, didn't win, as they were off.
And it ended even better, as the Rays ran their winning streak to a season-high and majors-long eight games with a 3-2 victory over the fading White Sox.
The Rays went ahead on a ninth-inning home run by Evan Longoria on the eve of the one-year anniversary of his Game 162 heroics. Then they survived a bid for role-reversed drama as their other Game 162 star, Dan Johnson, now pinch-hitting for the Sox, lined out to start the ninth.
"We knew going in, obviously, that they lost," starter James Shields said. "We needed that win. That was a huge win for us."
Because of the matinee results, the Rays were in position to actually take control of their own destiny: They have the same number of losses as the Angels, and they still have three games remaining with the Orioles, meaning if they win the rest of their games, they would at least be in a tiebreaker playoff to get into the wild-card game. And if they win that, they would keep going.
And by the end of the night, after closer Fernando Rodney struck out dangerous Adam Dunn with a man on for his team-record 46th save, they seized it, moving within two games of the A's and three of the Orioles, with six to play.
"It brings us a little bit closer, but it doesn't guarantee anything," Longoria said. "It's a good moment for us, a good moment for me. But bottom line, it's just one game. It's a game we needed, no doubt about that."
Manager Joe Maddon didn't want to talk about the big picture at all, preferring to stick with his shtick, to this point successful, that they are merely compiling one-game winning streaks.
"Tomorrow's Friday," he said. "I want to go 1-0 on Friday. Keep the blinders on."
The game was 2-2 going to the ninth after an uneven performance from not-sharp starter Shields, who was dancing more than the rookies on Wednesday in the hazing routine he orchestrated. But he allowed only two runs while working into the seventh.
"I battled out there," Shields said.
Longoria stepped up with one out, knew from watching video that reliever Brett Myers would go to his off-speed stuff, and hit a 2-and-1 slider over the left-centerfield fence for the decisive run. It was Longoria's first go-ahead homer in the ninth inning (or later) since his 12th-inning playoff-clinching walkoff shot in Game 162 a year ago today.
"Only fitting," Shields said.
There were other big moments, such as Ben Zobrist's double that led to their first run and Luke Scott's homer for their second.
And also, Maddon pointed out, some smaller ones.
Third baseman Longoria diving to start and Jeff Keppinger turning a key double play in the third. Catcher Jose Lobaton blocking several pitches with men on. Outfielders B.J. Upton and Matt Joyce running down line drives. Reliever Jake McGee getting two more key outs. And the group effort to notice pinch-runner Jordan Danks not retouching second after an eight-inning fly out, ending a Sox threat.
"Longo always seems to be involved in the positive drama that occurs," Maddon said. "But there were a lot of little subplots in tonight's game that I liked that were more reminiscent of how we play."
Shields clearly did not have his usual command, walking four and hitting two while allowing six hits over 6 1/3 innings, and throwing only 69 of his 117 pitches for strikes. He loaded the bases with no outs in the fourth and fifth innings, and while he gave up the lead both times, he did well to allow the Sox only one run.
As much as Maddon won't annoint any win as big, he felt this one was significant for a different reason: It was the kind of game the Rays had lost so often this year. The pitching keeps them in it, the offense "disappears" and something bad happens at the end.
"We turned it around tonight," he said.