Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Rays round up the unusual suspects

ST. PETERSBURG

This time, it was Desmond Jennings.

This time, it was a routine chopper up the middle.

This time, it took until the bottom of the 15th inning for success to come around.

And there the Tampa Bay Rays go, dancing nightly at a plate near you. These guys treat baseball as if it were a giant game of Clue, as if the entire point was to guess who will do it in the end with what weapon and in what room.

Every night, this team finds a new hero to pound on the back. Every night, it hangs around the ballpark until you figure it would give up and go home. And every night, it finds a way to pull another keeper out of the calamity.

This time, it was Jennings, a center­fielder hitting only .236, on the least-likely game-winning play you could imagine. Saturday's day game had long turned to night when Jennings walked up with runners on first and second and no one out in the 15th. He hit a routine bouncer back to the mound that looked like a double play. And Boston pitcher Andrew Miller threw it into centerfield for a 6-5 Rays win.

A walkoff?

No, this one was a throw-off.

Still, it was the Rays' third dramatic victory in a row. On Thursday night, Sean Rodriguez hit a three-run homer in the bottom of the 11th. And Friday, Cole Figueroa doubled home the winning run in the bottom of the ninth. And now this. It is the first time in franchise history that the team has had three consecutive walkoff victories.

And who knows.

Maybe there is life to this team, after all. Can anyone see the third-place Orioles in the distance?

A stretch like this has to get the juices flowing for Tampa Bay. How can it not? The Rays have spent too much of this season in the cellar. And now, it turns into Team Houdini. For most of the night, it is shackled and underwater and in a straitjacket, and someone wriggles it free at the last possible moment. Viola! And how could you ever doubt?

"It really means a lot," manager Joe Maddon said. "When you start feeling and learning how to win games late, it can really propel you."

If nothing else, Saturday night was one of the oddest games the Rays have ever played. Start with the ace who wasn't. David Price, who was built for a night like this, gave up five earned runs to the first six batters he faced. It was almost as if he was daring the Rays to trade him.

And, after that, Price showed precisely why the team couldn't do that. Look, it's easy to grouse and wonder how often a true ace gives up five earned runs in a game, let alone an inning. Price has done that three times this season. But after that first, he gave up only a single and walk to the next 23 batters he faced, and his team chipped and scrapped and tied the score by the fifth inning.

At which time, it stopped hitting, too. The Rays batters haven't thrown a lot of fear into opposing pitchers all season. Saturday night showed why. The Rays threw up nine consecutive zeroes. There were times you would think that if a bunch of them had descended on a Chevy in a car wash, and whacked it endlessly with bats, then the car would have ended up dent-free.

The Rays who did get the hits? Yeah, they were the least likely guys you would have expected. Figures. Brandon Guyer, of all people, had four of them. But what was he doing in the lineup? Guyer came in hitting only .196, and 10 of his 11 previous starts had been against left-handed pitchers. Saturday's opponent, Jake Peavy, is a right-hander.

Then there was Logan Forsythe, who had three hits. And what was Forsythe doing in the lineup? He was hitting only .179. The other options were Rodriguez and Figueroa, who had spent a lot of time getting their backs slapped the past two days. Can anyone else remember when a team had back-to-back walkoff heroes and didn't start either of them in the next game?

Why Forsythe? Why not? That's Maddon. The guy can pull the strangest lever and have it work out for him, can't he?

And that's the thing about the Rays when they are playing well. You never seem to know what to expect, or by whom. You never know which backup singer will take over lead solos.

Look, this team is flawed. It lacks power, and it doesn't have a lot of speed, and there are too many pedestrian hitters in the lineup.

But on nights such as this, it seems to have a certain amount of scrap, too.

This time, it was Jennings, on the easiest ground ball you could ever imagine.

Next time?

Try to guess.

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