MLB.com Columnist

Hal Bodley

Rays are at their best with their backs against the wall

Rays are at their best with their backs against the wall

Rays are at their best with their backs against the wall

ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rays live to play another day. Another game.

They dashed off the field on Monday night with a dramatic 5-4 victory over the Red Sox and remain alive in the best-of-five American League Division Series.

The thing about these Rays is that they do nothing easily. They like to play games with one arm tied behind their backs, with those backs to the wall. They're at their best when they're down for a 10 count, and they don't get up until it reaches nine.

NLDS

That's their trademark this autumn.

This October they've been written off more times than the double-martini lunch, but they somehow keep picking themselves up and rebuilding the moment, the game.

On Monday night they fought back from a three-run deficit when Evan Longoria, celebrating his 28th birthday, launched a three-run homer in the fifth inning, stalling Boston's march to the AL Championship Series.

And after the gritty Rays took a one-run lead in the eighth, they coughed it up when the Red Sox, out to finish this series here with a sweep, pulled even in the ninth off closer Fernando Rodney.

You could hear the sighs as far away as Sarasota.

But with manager Joe Maddon pulling just about every lever and pushing every button he had, the Rays weren't finished.

With two down in the ninth and the sellout crowd of 33,675 on its feet, Jose Lobaton crushed a split-fastball over the fence in right-center off the invincible Koji Uehara. It was just the third homer to splash down in the outfield tank, amid the swimming rays.

Before Lobaton's blast, Uehara had allowed only one earned run in his previous 38 appearances.

If this had been the seventh game of a World Series, it would have been talked about for eons to come. There were so many twists, turns and plays that even the graybeards in the press box were shaking their heads.

When it comes to managing, Maddon has often been called a genius. His moves frequently leave you shaking your head, but more times than not, they work.

And late on Monday night, when he turned his batting order into a game of chess, he went so far as to eliminate his designated hitter and adopt National League rules.

When the beleaguered Wil Myers exited after the seventh inning with leg cramps, Maddon inserted reliever Jake McGee into Myers' cleanup spot in the batting order.

Maddon also put DH Matt Joyce in right field, thus eliminating the DH.

"Then we had to start moving the spot around to prevent the pitcher from having to hit," Maddon said. "That was pure National League the rest of the way."

After McGee left the game, Lobaton took that spot in the order.

So you have to wonder what the outcome would have been had Myers not been forced to the trainer's room.

That's just another example of the magical touch Maddon has. He used 13 position players and five pitchers on Monday; among non-pitchers, only Kelly Johnson remained on his bench.

"This really was an incredible day for the Rays," Maddon gushed 30 minutes after the final out.

"We've been through a lot of stuff here for the last several years. That ranks right up there with the best. You can talk about the last game of the season in 2011, but look at this whole week working up to today. This game was even more dramatic than the other games we've already won."

The Rays have continually faced elimination, beginning with Game 162 in Toronto. They won that one, then were in the same predicament in Game 163 at Texas, and won to land the second AL Wild Card berth. From there they had to beat Cleveland in the battle of the Wild Cards to gain entry to the ALDS.

And after playing dreadful baseball in Boston, losing the first two games of this series, they returned to St. Petersburg with their backs to the wall once again.

It's obvious that they ooze with confidence in these situations.

"I'm sure there's an attitude that they have nothing to lose and just let it all hang out," said Boston skipper John Farrell. "That's what we've been accustomed to for years against the Rays. As I mentioned before this series started, we have tremendous respect for them, and we know it will be a very similar game tomorrow night."

The Red Sox are arguably the best team in the AL, if not the Major Leagues. Regardless of what happens on Tuesday night or in Game 5 if it goes that far, the Rays have had a tremendous season. Maddon agreed with that assessment before Monday's game, but also said that he and his players will never be satisfied until they win the World Series.

"I think we all understand the stakes," said Longoria. "We all understand that we have our backs against the wall. And it seems like those moments have been fueling us.

"These are the games that we've really played well in. Although you'd like to be on the other side, maybe we need that right now."

Longoria believes the momentum could be on the Rays' side on Tuesday night, when Jeremy Hellickson pitches against the veteran Jake Peavy.

And once again the Rays face elimination.

If they win that game, it'll be the same scenario for Game 5.

Granted, even after Monday's sensational victory, they're still the underdogs in this tournament.

Actually, they wouldn't have it any other way.

Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.