ST. PETERSBURG — With a few fortuitous late-inning bounces Sunday, the Rays transformed what looked like another offensive eyesore into an electrifying walkoff victory.
“That’s baseball,’’ catcher Travis d’Arnaud said.
Actually, that’s Rays baseball. How else to explain seven innings of deficit misery against the Tigers, who have the majors’ worst record … and then, a minirally to pull within a run … and then, loading the bases in the ninth without hitting it out of the infield?
It was left for Ji-Man Choi, who smacked a one-out, two-run single up the middle, scoring the tying and winning runs in a suddenly pulsating 5-4 win before an announced crowd of 16,634 at Tropicana Field.
Choi jubilantly extended both arms in airplane fashion before getting mobbed by the onrushing flood of teammates. Who knows how, but the Rays were soaring.
The Rays (73-52), who maintained their hold on the American League’s second wild-card playoff spot, needed every ounce of their brinksmanship. The Tigers (37-84) began the eighth inning with a 4-1 lead and still had a 4-3 advantage in the ninth.
“You’re looking for any little thing that can spark you,’’ said d’Arnaud, who led off the ninth by hustling his way on when a slightly errant throw by shortstop Gordon Beckham pulled first baseman Brandon Dixon off the bag.
“Even as bad as it seemed sometimes, we never stopped believing we could get some runs and win this game,’’ said shortstop Willy Adames, who became the potential winning run by drawing a walk off Tigers closer Joe Jimenez.
“Sometimes, you hit it hard right at somebody, and sometimes you just hit it to the right place,’’ said infielder Mike Brosseau, who loaded the bases on a one-out infield single after third baseman Dawel Lugo ranged to his left in the hole but had no play.
Up came Choi, who already had played a key role in the eighth, when he entered as a pinch-hitter. Choi had drawn a leadoff walk, setting up Tommy Pham’s two-run homer that pulled the Rays within 4-3.
In the ninth, facing a shift stacked to the infield’s right side, the lefty-hitting Choi said he had a cautious approach.
“I wasn’t (trying) to be aggressive,’’ Choi said through a team interpreter. “I was trying my best to get a (run) for the team and at least tie (it up).’’
Choi’s single went past the mound and Jimenez, who had no time to react, then through a diving Beckham, who was playing to the right of second base. The single snapped a streak of 17 at-bats by the Rays without a hit with the bases loaded.
“Wow, it was great,’’ said Adames, who scored the winning run. “I ran as fast as I could to score, then went to find (Choi). He came through for us. We found a way to win. That’s all that matters.’’
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“You can’t do this too many times,’’ said manager Kevin Cash, referring also to his team’s 1-0, 13-inning walkoff win Saturday. “Certainly, we will take these two at this time of the season. Any win you can get is important. These two have been really big.’’
The game’s fine print revealed a few concerns.
Rays starter Trevor Richards, just called up from Triple-A Durham after being acquired from the Marlins at the July 31 trade deadline, trailed 2-0 after three batters, surrendering a two-run homer to Harold Castro in a 28-pitch first inning.
The Tigers scored two more in the eighth, leading 4-1 and accentuating the Rays’ offensive woes. Entering Sunday’s eighth inning, the Rays had scored two runs — on 13 total hits — during the first 29 innings of the weekend series.
Tigers left-hander Matthew Boyd allowed just two hits in seven innings, while collecting nine strikeouts. The bullpen was called to finish off the Rays.
Then it all changed.
“We competed with a team that’s in a playoff race,’’ Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire said. “It was in our hands, in our grips. We just lost it a little bit. The ball was hit just in the right places for them to get the win.’’
Whether lucky or good, it was another valuable win for the Rays.
“The good teams, when they’re down, they don’t give up, and they find ways to win,’’ d’Arnaud said.
That’s Rays baseball.