ST. PETERSBURG — When this homestand started, Rays catcher Jose Lobaton had zero walkoff hits in his big-league career.
Then his parents, Tomas and Maria, arrived last week from Venezuela to watch him play for the first time in the United States. And now Lobaton has two walkoff hits in three days, including the winning homer in the 10th inning Sunday to lift the Rays to a 2-1 victory over the Blue Jays in front of 23,373 at Tropicana Field.
That led manager Joe Maddon to lobby for Lobaton's parents to be permanent fixtures at the Trop. "Season ticket holders," he joked. "I can't necessarily say we'll pick up the tab regarding the plane flight, but once they're in the ballpark, I'll buy Mr. Lobaton's beers. Whatever he needs, I'm in."
Lobaton's folks won't be moving here anytime soon, but they enjoyed one spectacular show by their son this weekend.
On Friday, Lobaton came through with a walkoff triple in the ninth inning, calling it the best feeling he has had on a baseball field. Then Sunday, after striking out in his first three at-bats, Lobaton ripped Brad Lincoln's 2-and-1 pitch into the rightfield seats.
"It's unbelievable," Lobaton said. "It's something you want to do all the time, you want to feel that every day. Hopefully, it's not the last time."
Maddon said the Rays (70-52), who moved back within a game of the AL East-leading Red Sox, started to feel a lot more like themselves during their 4-2 homestand, which included three walkoff wins. They got a strong seven-inning start from rookie Chris Archer in a pitcher's duel with St. Petersburg native and Northside Christian product Todd Redmond. They played spectacular defense, including a few more gems by third baseman Evan Longoria, who also homered. And Maddon said they witnessed the kind of "magical" and "funky" moments they've experienced in their best seasons.
"It's got that feel to it," Maddon said.
The Rays caught a break in the ninth when Edwin Encarnacion missed a go-ahead homer by an inch, his line drive off Fernando Rodney bouncing off the top of the shorter 5-foot wall in the leftfield corner and back into play. "Very, very lucky right there," Maddon said.
"That," leftfielder Matt Joyce said, "was the game."
The Rays had just blown a golden opportunity to take the lead in the eighth, when they put runners on first and third with no outs. They came up with nothing, partly thanks to a botched safety squeeze by Jason Bourgeois that led to Sean Rodriguez getting caught in a rundown between third and home.
Bourgeois whiffed on the bunt, but Rodriguez said he "messed up" by being overly aggressive. "Loby picked me up," Rodriguez said. "It's huge, I don't have to leave the clubhouse with a little bit of frustration, I can leave with a smile."
So could Lobaton. As many strides as he has made in his second full season, Maddon said the confidence he derives from the walkoff hits can "make him into a different player" and take his game to "another level."
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To commemorate the homer, Lobaton received the typical Gatorade bath and whipped cream pie, along with a huge tub of ice cream he took on the plane ride to Baltimore. But before entering another crazy clubhouse celebration, which included a new smoke machine, Lobaton hugged his parents goodbye.
Lobaton smiled, "I would like to have my dad and mom here all the time."