Gross' walk-off homer gives Rays finale
Long ball in 10th beats White Sox; Howell notches fourth win
ST. PETERSBURG -- Lee and Betty Gross sat in the stands of Tropicana Field on Sunday afternoon with one eye on the clock and another on the field.
After all, the parents of Gabe Gross -- who were joined by grandmother Sara -- still had a six-hour drive to get back to Alabama after the weekend visit.
They warned their son -- who was granted a rare start against lefty Mark Buehrle -- that they might have to duck out early if the game went too long.
Gross made sure they didn't miss a thing, leading off the 10th inning with a walk-off home run to notch a 4-3 win over the White Sox. The victory secured the four-game series for the Rays.
"Any more dramatic than that I don't know," manager Joe Maddon said, fresh off his team's American League-leading sixth walk-off win this season.
It couldn't be any more unpredictable, either.
Gross entered the game 1-for-9 off left-handed pitching and was granted a rare start in right field simply because Maddon wanted the outfielder's strong defense on hand against the Sox sluggers.
But it was Gross' bat that made the difference. He went 2-for-4 with three RBIs and was joined by reliever J.P. Howell as the latest in a revolving door of Rays difference-makers.
"It's been said a couple times in the paper: It's a different driver every night," Gross said. "And it really almost has been. From our hitters, to our pitching staff, starters to closers, middle relief -- doesn't matter. Somebody's doing something clutch all the time."
For the second consecutive game, Howell (4-0) was electrifying. The former starter, who moved to the bullpen in Spring Training, followed a pair of clutch strikeouts on Saturday night with two scoreless innings. After giving up a bloop leadoff double to Jim Thome in the 10th, Howell retired the next three batters, including an inning-ending strikeout of Nick Swisher, to quash the threat.
"I see a lot of confidence, obviously, right now," Maddon said about the emergence of Howell in the game's late innings. "I have no problem with him in tough situations."
Neither does Howell, who is beginning to relish the pressure of a high-profile bullpen role.
"I accept it now. I can look at it for what it is and not be scared of it," he said. "And I can just kind of stay within myself and understand that this is what I train for."
Although Howell and Gross have largely flown under the radar this season, the unsung-hero role has been one the Rays have grown accustomed to obliterating every night.
It was the bottom of the order that sparked the offense on Sunday. Trailing by a pair of runs going into the bottom of the fifth inning, Jonny Gomes opened with a bloop single over first base and was followed by a Shawn Riggans double. Gross followed with a triple that plated a pair of runs to then tie the game at 3.
"That's what makes a great ballclub," said Gross. "Not just your starting nine or not just your [Nos.] four, five hitters, but your depth. And the fact that guys come up clutch in different ways and different points. That's what we've been doing."
Even starter Andy Sonnanstine -- who struggled for most of the afternoon -- won a crucial battle.
Sonnanstine had runners at first and third with no outs in the fifth frame. He pitched his way out with only one run allowed, showing a mental toughness that helped elevate the club.
"That concentration really does push on to everyone else," Howell said. "Whether [Sonnanstine] knows it or not."
Maddon had equal praise for the Sonnanstine, as the right-hander's battles kept the game in striking distance, a position where the Rays have thrived.
"When you get the belief if you keep it close you can win it in the end, that's a great feeling to have in this game," Maddon said. "And I think right now we have that feeling. We have to nurture it and maintain it. We've definitely been nurturing it, my god."
After Friday's fifth walk-off win, Gross said the team had half-seriously talked about getting in some early work, to nail down their celebratory technique at home plate.
But after Sunday afternoon, they may have to amend those plans.
"We're getting enough practice during the games," he said.
Brittany Ghiroli is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.