ST. PETERSBURG — For much of Sunday afternoon, the Rays didn’t look very good, much less like the team they expect to be.
Blake Snell’s planned short outing was two innings and a hefty 46 pitches. The offense was so quiet, the only highlight through eight innings was a solo homer by Ji-Man Choi — hitting right-handed for the first time in the majors. Relievers Trevor Richards and Andrew Kittredge teamed to allow six straight hits in the sixth, putting the Rays in a four-run hole.
Even after they showed some pluck with a two-out, two-run rally in the ninth to tie, they fell right back behind in the 10th. And all their in-game maneuvering left them with 32-year-old, 230-pound third-string catcher Kevan Smith as the tying run on second base to start their final at-bat.
But Jose Martinez battled through nine pitches to work a big walk to open the 10th. Then Kevin Kiermaier made his first hit of the season a huge one, lacing a ball into the rightfield corner that scored Smith and Martinez. Then the Rays were celebrating a wild 6-5, 10-inning walkoff win.
And the Rays not only looked all right, but a bit like last year’s team that made these kind of amazing comebacks seem somewhat routine on the way to the playoffs.
“It says a lot about the resolve,” manager Kevin Cash said. “We talked about that a lot last year, and we were pretty good. Hopefully we continue talking about it a lot this year.”
There were so many key moments, huge at-bats, key plays and interesting decisions in Sunday’s game, they can’t all be recounted without leaving someone out.
Just after two outs in the ninth inning alone, with the Rays down 4-2, there’s a litany.
Joey Wendle, pinch-hitting for fellow lefty Michael Perez, ripped a double off Jays closer Ken Giles. Willy Adames fought the urge to expand the strike zone and drew a walk. Yoshi Tsutsugo, who had come off the bench in the seventh, worked another walk. Choi was ahead 3-1 in the count batting his natural lefty side, when Giles left with a sore elbow. So Choi changed helmets and batter’s boxes to face lefty reliever Brian Moran and took ball four, forcing in a run. Brandon Lowe grounded to second but went all out down the line and slid in headfirst — the safe call withstanding a replay review — to get the tying run home.
“A lot of really, really, really good at-bats,” Cash said.
Under the new 2020 rules, teams start extra innings with a runner— the batter from the last out of the previous inning or a pinch-runner — on second to try to minimize how much longer they play.
Jays manager Charlie Montoyo, the longtime former Rays coach, used speedy Santiago Espinal, and it paid off when he stole third — an original out call reversed by replay, much to Cash’s dismay. Espinal then scored on a sac fly by Lourdes Gurriel to left-center, Tsutsugo, who was running to his left, making the catch in front of centerfielder Kiermaier, who had a better chance of making a strong throw.
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Reliever Chaz Roe kept it 6-5, setting the Rays up for their dramatic finish.
Martinez, who turned 32 Saturday, had joined the team just eight days earlier after a case of COVID-19 had sidelined him from the start of training camp.
Battling back from a 1-2 count against a pitcher he had never seen before — Japanese rookie Shun Yamaguchi — to draw a nine-pitch walk was one thing.
Scoring from first when Kiermaier took advantage of Toronto’s outfield shift that left much of rightfield open and laced a ball into the corner was something else.
“He’s probably still on his back breathing hard right now,” Cash said.
“I already drank three bottles of water,” Martinez said a few minutes later. “I’m okay.”
For all the individual accomplishments, this was a team win, the type that even three games into a season — one of only 60 games, remember — that can carry over.
“Our team is more about momentum,” Choi said via translator Steve Nam. “I think (Sunday) we kind of earned that, and from now on I think that momentum will give us a better spirit.”
The Rays know that from their own experience.
“It’s a new year, but the same mind-set,” Kiermaier said. “We had so many great come-from-behind wins last year. The best teams in baseball do that year in and year out. You can ever count those teams out.
“This whole series we didn’t swing the bats the way we wanted to, especially with runners in scoring position (5-for-28). Good things happen when you have 25-30 guys all on the same page with that never-quit mentality. We take a lot of pride in what we do out there, and it’s a contagious feel throughout the clubhouse.
“For us to have that back-against-the-wall type of win (in) Game 3 of the year, that was great. We’d much rather just win it outright rather than having to try to pull off those comeback wins, but at the same time they’re fun to be a part of, and it’s great for that team camaraderie and those vibes throughout the whole clubhouse.”