MINNEAPOLIS — Jeff Keppinger was surprised and a bit confused when he got to first base Sunday.
Having hit a slow bouncer to shortstop in the game's most pivotal moment — score tied in the 10th, bases loaded with one out — he had expected there to be either no play or a close play, figuring Twins rookie Brian Dozier would either throw home for the forceout or try for the inning-ending double play.
So when he was out so easily, by four steps or so, he turned to Rays first-base coach George "Cuz" Hendrick for explanation.
"I'm like, there's no way they turned that double play that fast," Keppinger said. "I asked Cuz, and I'm like, 'Did he just throw the ball to first?' And he's like, 'Yeeeeaaaaaah.' "
Hendrick wasn't the only one smiling, as Desmond Jennings scored the go-ahead run on the play and the Rays tacked on three more to post a 7-3 victory they would savor all the way to Seattle.
That kind of break — coming after a series of wasted opportunities, a sloppy day in the field with three errors, a potentially rally-killing decision to bunt by Ben Zobrist, and a good-but-not-great outing by James Shields, who gave up an early lead — was yet another example of how things have changed for the Rays.
A couple of months ago, even a couple of weeks ago, this would have been a game they lost, frustratingly so.
Instead, it was a cause for another loud clubhouse celebration as they ran their winning streak to a season-high-matching six by completing back-to-back sweeps while taking sole possession of the top American League wild-card spot at 62-52 and moving within five games of the East-leading Yankees. It was their first extra-inning road win in more than a year.
"When you win some games, you believe you're going to win," manager Joe Maddon said. "You believe you're going to pull it out somehow. There's that intangible thing that circulates through your body when you believe that you can — and we do. We believe that we can. So in moments like that, when you're in the thick of things and you're making a solid run right now, you almost will good things to happen sometimes."
The Rays looked like they would make it much easier when homers by Jennings (on the game's fifth pitch) and Keppinger gave them an early 2-0 lead, but Shields gave it back, and one more. The Rays came back to tie in the fifth, and from there the teams traded wasted chances, with Shields doing a particularly good job of keeping the Twins from converting in the seventh.
Jennings started the 10th with a single, then stole second ahead of B.J. Upton's walk. Zobrist made the decision to bunt them up a base, but in doing so rendered Evan Longoria useless as the Twins intentionally walked him to load the bases, then Maddon took him out for a pinch-runner.
But Keppinger followed with his slow bouncer, joking "all we needed was a ground ball that was soft enough that they couldn't turn two on yet that they couldn't throw home. And we got it. You've got to practice it a lot."
Then Dozier made the curious decision he defended, saying there was no way to get Jennings at the plate and "no chance" to turn the double play, even though Keppinger is not much of a runner. "It's bad luck," Dozier said, "but at the same time, you've got to make sure you get one out."
As many times the Rays felt wronged over months of bad news and bad breaks, they were quite pleased to have it go their way.
"It's good to have one every once in a while," Jennings said.
Still, Maddon said, they are far from being even.
"Not even close."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]