Rays' walk-off celebration has October feel
Newcomer Allen's homer underscores promise in St. Pete
ST. PETERSBURG -- As victory celebrations go, this one was vintage October.
The music was so loud it was deafening, vibrating from one wall of the clubhouse to the other as the giddy Tampa Bay Rays toasted their newest hero and latest win.
Newcomer Brandon Allen's two-run, walk-off homer in the ninth inning Thursday afternoon gave the Rays a stunning 4-3 victory over the Los Angeles Angels, and you might have thought it was the postseason, not merely the 19th game of 2012.
"Hey, wait a minute, let's turn that music down," somebody shouted as reporters jammed into manager Joe Maddon's office for his take on another of the Rays' magical wins.
At this stage of the season, turning down the volume is the worst thing that could happen. After sweeping the struggling Angels in three games at Tropicana Field, the Rays have to keep the music playing. The louder, the better.
"That was quite a celebration," gushed Maddon. "The guys are really into it. Two great at-bats [by Allen] two days in a row. I mean, that ball he hit was struck. He got his pitch and didn't miss it."
Seldom has there been so much promise at Tropicana Field, and the Rays are proving it's legitimate. This team is special.
There's enormous energy on the field, and it manifests into a confidence evidenced by the way the Rays play.
They're off to Texas for their most important test of the season, a three-game series in Arlington against the Rangers, who own the best record (15-4) in the Major Leagues.
Friday night's opener should be a classic, right-hander James Shields vs. left-hander Matt Harrison, a matchup of two undefeated aces who've each won their first three decisions.
As an aside, it should be mentioned in both 2010 and 2011, the Rangers, en route to the World Series, eliminated the Rays in the American League Division Series.
"Right now, we're playing pretty good baseball, we've had a very nice homestand," said Maddon. "The Rangers are playing very well. They've been tough versus us. They're a very good ballclub; they have everything they need. There's no weaknesses within that group. So, it's going to be a very interesting three-game series this early in the year."
The Rays jetted out of Florida on Thursday night with a five-game winning streak and first place in the rugged AL East.
"The guys understand what's at stake," said Maddon. "We know what it's like to get behind and how difficult it is in our division. We don't want to get behind."
The expertise of the front office and the scouting department cannot be overlooked.
Consider Allen, age 26. He'd had brief stints with Arizona and Oakland, a total of 109 games dating to 2009. The Rays saw something special last Thursday after the A's released him. They claimed him on waivers, added him to the roster on Saturday, and on Wednesday night, in his first appearance with Tampa Bay, he walked with the bases loaded to bring home the winning run in a 3-2 conquest of the Angels.
Maddon sent him to the plate in the ninth inning Thursday, with B. J. Upton on first base and one out. He sent Jordan Walden's 2-2 pitch screaming to the right-field seats, triggering an on-field pile of celebrating Rays that quickly moved to the boisterous clubhouse.
Maddon said Allen "has made a great impression -- talk to the guys in the clubhouse. And then to do this, basically win two games in a row, is pretty special. He's not had a lot of at-bats over the last couple of weeks, and that speaks a lot to his makeup we've heard about. He's had nothing but good swings to this point."
The home run saved rookie left-hander Matt Moore from being tagged with the loss.
"I'm so happy for him," said the young pitcher. "We're playing real well right now, and to have something like that heading into a road series is huge for us. It was his second at-bat with us, and his first one was huge also."
Taking advantage of the scuffling Angels was important. Los Angeles goes to Cleveland for the weekend in last place in the AL West with a 6-13 record and four straight losses.
Albert Pujols, the $240 million free-agent acquisition, has yet to homer this season. When he singled in the sixth inning against Moore, he ended a 21 at-bat hitless streak, the longest drought of his career. He was thrown out trying to stretch the single into a double.
"That's a good team; those guys over there are going to make you earn every inch," Angels manager Mike Sciosica said of the Rays. "We did a lot of things well on the field, and we're going to hopefully carry that into Cleveland and piece it together a little bit."
In the end, the day and game belonged to the Rays and Allen.
"Baseball is luck," the quiet-spoken Allen said an hour after his heroics. "You just have to do what you can to prepare for the moment, and thank God, He prepared me for it, and I just went up there and stayed within myself.
"You go up there and you feel the energy after being [behind] all game, but once you see that first pitch, everything calms down -- and get a pitch you can do something with."
And let the celebration begin.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.