Tampa Bay entered its series finale against Boston on a quiet sprint up the lowest rungs of the American League East ladder, having recovered 11 games in the standings from fourth-place Baltimore in exactly three weeks.
But with one mighty swing, Ortiz ruined the Rays' opportunity to seal their first series win at Fenway Park since 1999 and climb out of last place with a two-run home run with one out in the ninth. Closer Al Reyes was tagged with the decision of a gut-wrenching 5-4 loss after allowing Ortiz's two-run walk-off blast, the Sox slugger's second homer of the night.
"He's done it to other teams before he did it to us tonight," said manager Joe Maddon. "To put it simply, he's done it before."
Offensively, Tampa Bay picked up right where it left off during a 13-6 stretch since Aug. 24. The Rays had lurched ahead towards the middle of the standings by leading the Majors in hitting, slugging, runs and home runs during that stretch.
In the first inning on Wednesday, they circled the bases four times on four hits and two walks. B.J. Upton rung the first fastball he saw from Boston starter Jon Lester off Pesky's Pole in right, an opposite-field shot that immediately silenced the Fenway Park crowd. Upton's 24th homer of the season gave the Rays a 3-0 lead, which became 4-0 after a Johnny Gomes RBI single.
Meanwhile, starter Edwin Jackson threw six innings of three-run ball against the patient Sox, his only transgression a middle-in fastball to Ortiz in the third. The result was a fierce three-run blast, Ortiz's 30th homer of the season, which cut the Rays' early lead to 4-3.
"He gets paid to hit mistakes," Jackson said. "And that's what he does."
Nevertheless, the Rays managed to do what they couldn't on Tuesday night: keep the Boston bats in check for five solid innings. Jackson repeatedly escaped jams with big strikeouts -- he had six -- and apparent game-saving plays by his defense.
"I thought he righted himself," Maddon said. "They hit some balls hard for outs. They had some atom balls. We had our targets well-placed. [They] hit our targets."
"But," he said, "I thought he made pitches when he had to. ... I liked the way he maintained his composure today."
Said Jackson, "My job as a starter is to go out and give the team a chance to win, regardless of how pretty or how bad it looks."
Jackson and a collection of relievers took a 4-3 lead into the bottom of the ninth when Reyes entered the game.
"I thought we kind of quieted the crowd," Maddon said. "Jackson did it, [Gary] Glover did it, [Dan] Wheeler did it, and we were looking to do it in the ninth, and it didn't happen."
The first batter, Julio Lugo, walked after a seven-pitch at-bat, the final fastball humming in several inches outside.
"It's something I try to stay away [from], to walk the leadoff guy," Reyes said. "When you walk guys ... you start pitching different. Because you've got a guy like Lugo, you have to keep him [close] to first base."
"You start worrying about ... keeping him close," Reyes added, "and thinking about the hitter, too."
"Everybody's going to be talking about Papi's homer," Maddon said, "but the leadoff walk was really the big issue there."
Reyes retired the next batter, Dustin Pedroia, on a fly ball to left. Up walked Ortiz, who has never been a stranger to late-game heroics. Reyes ran the count to 3-1.
"[I] just wanted to, tried to come in on him," Reyes said. "And the pitch was just coming in, but it wasn't where I wanted."
Ortiz saw the fastball and uncorked a full swing. The ball flew high in the air to right, much higher than the third-inning missile off Jackson. Right fielder Delmon Young immediately broke towards the right-field foul pole, spun around and lost the ball before it landed comfortably in the first row of the bleachers.
"Wind was kind of crazy tonight," said Ortiz after the game. "But it worked the right way."
"You're ... just trying to go catch it," Young said. "But he hit it good enough to get out, because he's really strong, and [it] got into the jet stream."
When asked if he had a chance at the ball, Young answered that he didn't.
"Because I didn't go with the wind. I had a chance if I stayed on the line. But it went towards the back part of the ... curve [of the wall]."
The Rays walked off the field, winners of just one of three games despite holding leads in each.
"It's frustrating," Maddon said. "Nobody out there feels good about this, least of all [Reyes]. But he's done a great job for us this year. He's been there for us the whole season. And I'm not going to denigrate his performance, ever."
"When we came in," he added, "I said that I wanted us to play three good games, and basically, we did. ... I like what we are doing. I like how we are doing it. I like the effort, I like the intensity and I like to believe we are getting better."
On one night, nevertheless, there was no stopping the one man who has done it for years.
"Five RBIs, two home runs," said Maddon of Ortiz. "We lose."
Alex McPhillips is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less