ST. PETERSBURG — By the time the slumping Rays centerfielder came to the plate in the ninth inning, doom seemed to have settled in quite comfortably at Tropicana Field.
It would be a terrible homestand punctuated by a horrible finale. The Rays would be taking another step backward in the AL wild-card race and doubt would continue to wedge its way into every conversation.
Sound about right? Not to Kevin Kiermaier.
“We’re not stopping until that last out is made,’’ he said.
Two pitches later, Kiermaier was in an 0-2 count against the Mariners’ Matt Magill. He took a close pitch for ball one. Then ball two. Then ball three. Then he barely fouled off a pitch.
“I knew he was going to throw me a heater because he doesn’t want to walk me,’’ Kiermaier said. “I knew I would get a fastball to hit, and I didn’t miss it.’’
Kiermaier hit a 432-foot home run to dead center to tie the score, and the Rays got a 7-6 walkoff victory a few batters later on a bases-loaded wild pitch before an announced crowd of 7,827. It was Tampa Bay’s third walkoff victory in five days, and it was the only way they could salvage a .500 homestand against a pair of downtrodden teams.
“We’ve got to be resilient now,’’ manager Kevin Cash said. “If we’re going to get down, we have to find a way to get back up.’’
The Rays (74-54) guaranteed they would keep pace with Oakland for the second wild card. They also moved within a half-game of Cleveland for the top spot after the Indians lost 4-3 in 10 innings to the Mets.
It shouldn’t have been this difficult. Not the homestand and not the game.
The Rays arrived home on a roll, 12 wins in 15 games, but stumped against the Tigers and nearly gagged against the Mariners, both teams in last place in their divisions.
Charlie Morton gave the Rays a chance to win Wednesday with five decent innings, and the bullpen did its job for three innings until closer Emilio Pagan took over in the ninth with a 5-3 lead.
Pagan immediately gave up a home run to Daniel Vogelbach and later lost the lead on a two-run triple by former Rays outfielder Mallex Smith.
That put Kiermaier at the plate to lead off the bottom of the ninth. The centerfielder had broken an 0-for-19 slump on Tuesday and was just beginning to get his confidence back.
"I had a really, really rough week personally ever since we got to San Diego,’’ he said. “Anytime I hit the ball hard, it was right at guys, and every other time was weak contact or strikeouts. I’m a much better player when I play with confidence, and I lost it there for 5-6 games, and it showed.’’
Willy Adames followed the homer with a single, Mike Brosseau doubled and Ji-Man Choi was intentionally walked before Magill threw a wild pitch on a 1-2 count to Tommy Pham.
“We are in contention to be in the playoffs with a little more than a month to go, and the guys want to win,’’ Morton said. “That’s what happened today. They willed it to happen.’’
Contact John Romano at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.