Tropicana Field swelled with fans as the Rays' splendid collection of young talent -- tempered with the distinctive Far East influence -- led a 6-5 come-from-behind victory in front of a sellout crowd of 38,437 in the home opener.
How the Rays got from point A to point B made it all the more interesting and exciting to the exuberant crowd.
Everything went the Rays' way for the first six innings. Starter James Shields had his fastball command, which he offset nicely with a quality changeup en route to not allowing a run through his first six innings. Meanwhile, Ty Wigginton, B.J. Upton and Akinori Iwamura hit solo home runs to put the Rays up, 3-0. A lot of fans would have been happy had the game ended after six innings, but the impressive part came after the Rays had gotten their noses bloodied and decided to fight back rather than accept defeat.
Shields' undoing came with two outs in the seventh after Delmon Young made an aggressive attempt to grab Greg Zaun's sinking liner to right field. Young dove and came up empty, allowing Zaun to end up with a triple. Aaron Hill followed with an RBI double, and Reed Johnson an RBI single to tie the score 3-3. An inning later, Troy Glaus appeared to administer the knockout punch when he hit a two-run homer off Shawn Camp to put the Jays up, 5-3.
When the Rays went quietly in the eighth, everybody in the ballpark knew the Blue Jays would bring in standout closer B.J. Ryan to finish off Tampa Bay. Still, the Rays' heart continued to beat. Wigginton rode a single to right field with one out to bring Young to the plate.
Free swinging is the calling card of the Rays' right fielder, so predictably Young swung at Ryan's first pitch and re-routed a fastball 356 feet into the right-field stands.
"I was just trying to get on base to help the team out," Young said. "You just look for a pitch and react to it."
Young's first home run of the season tied the score, 5-5, with Iwamura stepping into the batter's box.
Iwamura already had three hits in the game when he successfully dropped a bunt down the third-base line for his fourth hit. One out later, Elijah Dukes singled to left field, and Iwamura alertly sprinted to third base to bring up Upton with two outs.
Upton completed the comeback when he hit a chopper to shortstop John McDonald that turned into an infield single and a Rays victory.
"I'll take it any way you can," Upton said. "Just have to win, doesn't need to look pretty ... Off the bat I knew it was going to be a tough play for [McDonald] and I ran as hard as I could."
Iwamura found a mob scene at home plate after scoring the winning run.
"Everybody's bigger than I am," Iwamura said. "I was underneath. I had great excitement helping the team win."
Ryan had not suffered a blown save since July 30 at Oakland and did not allow an earned run against the Rays last season. He had a 1.13 ERA against the Rays the last four seasons while converting 13 of 14 save opportunities.
"Just wild," Ryan said of his performance. "Just not making pitches. I didn't do my job. You can't make the kind of mistakes I made tonight."
Even though the Rays are just three games into the 2007 season, manager Joe Maddon believes Friday's win could lead to something special.
"It matters when you do something in the ninth inning against a closer like Ryan," Maddon said. "You can draw confidence from it. I want us to draw confidence, but I don't want us to ever become complacent. You start doing well sometimes, and you start thinking it's going to happen all the time and you stop working. Our work's been good. I want our work to continue to be good. The effort's been wonderful. It's just three games into the season, but I do like the overall attitude and the camaraderie."
Much of the attitude stems from youngsters such as Young, who said proudly: "We play hard for 27 outs."
Friday night had a special feeling to Maddon and the players.
"[The] fans were fantastic," Maddon said. "I'd like to see that on a more consistent basis. It does make a difference."
Added Upton: "Great crowd tonight made it special. Hope they continue to come out."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less