09/10/08 12:26 AM ET
First place remains in Rays' hands
Late come-from-behind victory helps chase Fenway demons
By Bill Chastain / MLB.com
By winning, Tampa Bay snapped a four-game losing streak and earned its first win of a nine-game road trip to increase its lead in the American League East over second-place Boston to 1 1/2 games. The triumph also snapped a nine-game losing streak at Fenway Park.
Talk about a roller-coaster ride: the Rays carried a 3-2 lead into the bottom of the eighth, and they had the pitching matchup they wanted with Dan Wheeler going against Jason Bay with a runner aboard and two outs. Bay had been 1-for-18 in his career against the veteran right-hander, but this time, he hit a 1-1 pitch over the Green Monster in left to give the Red Sox a 4-3 lead.
Everything looked lost -- except in the Rays dugout.
"On the bench, it was like, 'OK, we have to score now,'" said Dan Johnson, who was just selected from Triple-A Durham on Tuesday. "It was never, 'Oh man, the game's over now.' It was, 'Let's get after it,' and the coaches on the bench were running around telling everybody what's going to happen: 'If this happens, this is what's going on.' They kept everybody informed, and everybody was calm and cool."
That cool rubbed off on Johnson when he was sent to the plate to lead off the inning against Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon. Based on the kind of day Johnson had experienced to that point, having to face one of the best closers in the game seemed to be a fitting way to end the day.
Johnson began the day in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., flew to Philadelphia and didn't reach Fenway Park in time to take advantage of being in the starting lineup. When he finally arrived to the park at 20 minutes before the start of the game, he was informed by Joe Maddon that he had been scratched from the lineup minutes earlier. The Rays manager also told him to stay ready. He did.
"Oh, man, it's been a while since I've been up here," Johnson said. "The first couple of pitches I was a little bit antsy. As the bat went on I was able to track some pitches. It got to 3-0, and I was able to really track the 3-0 pitch, then I was able to let loose on the 3-1 pitch, kind of got the timing down. It was the sixth pitch of the at-bat, and ended up being the fastball again, you know, [I] just got to it."
Johnson powered a drive into the right-field stands before arriving back to a sea of happy faces in the Rays' dugout. Heading into that at-bat, Johnson carried a career 0-for-15 mark in the Major Leagues as a pinch-hitter.
"On behalf of the Tampa Bay Rays organization, we'd like to thank U.S. Airways for getting Dan Johnson here on time," Maddon said. "We had him scheduled to hit in the two hole before the game began, but sometimes things work out in your favor -- an impressive at-bat under those circumstances. He got it all."
The Rays were not done. Rookie Fernando Perez followed with a double off the Green Monster and scored on Dioner Navarro's double to give the Rays a 5-4 lead.
"I just was trying to put the ball in play," Navarro said. "I faced him before, and I knew he was going to come after me. I got a pitch out over the plate and I just kind of went with it. I'm so glad the ball was fair and we got the win here."
Maddon entrusted closer Troy Percival to protect the 5-4 lead in the bottom half of the inning and, as is the custom of the veteran closer, he made things interesting.
Mark Kotsay drew a leadoff walk. Percival then struck out Jason Varitek to bring up David Ortiz, who had been inserted as a pinch-hitter in the seventh inning. Fenway Park's energy felt palpable at this point and Red Sox Nation sensed the kill, but Percival retired Ortiz on a flyout to right.
Red Sox manager Terry Francona elected to insert speedy Jacoby Ellsbury into the game as a pinch-runner with Coco Crisp stepping to the plate. Ellsbury promptly stole second and Navarro's throw to second base skipped into center field, allowing Ellsbury to reach third with the potential tying run.
Percival ended any hopes of a comeback when he got Crisp on a pop out to second base to end the game and earn his 28th save of the season.
"I think [Tuesday's win was] pretty significant, particularly how we did it," Maddon said. "All night long we had a chance to score a lot of runs, don't do it, don't do it. Then all of a sudden, they get a couple of home runs and they're on top, and here comes Mr. Closer into the game. And it's not a real good feeling.
"To be able to take charge of the game the way we did, it's very significant, and particularly here, what's been going on, where we're at in the race. ... It's a good feeling."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.