7-0 is a fateful score in the history of the Tampa Bay Rays. 7-0 was the defict that the Rays came back from in Game 162, 2011 to secure their improbable postseason berth. But 7-0 was also the lead the Rays blew in 2008 ALCS Game 5, giving the Red Sox the hope that led to three straight wins and forced the ALCS to a decisive seventh game. In which vein would Sunday’s 7-0 lead be remembered?
When the game began, it looked like the Rays were determined to stop fooling around and play like the playoff-bound team they knew they should be. Evan Longoria drilled an RBI double between RBI singles by James Loney and Delmon Young as the Rays jumped out to a 3-0 lead against Blue Jays starter Todd Redmond and knocked him out after just two-thirds of an inning. Jose Lobaton then slammed a two-run double off Neil Wagner before Yunel Escobar capped the scoring with an RBI to make it 6-0 Rays. But it was in the bottom of the inning that the first signs of trouble surfaced. Matt Moore walked three batters in the bottom of the inning, with only a spectacular double play started by James Loney preventing a big inning for the Blue Jays. But the Rays had their 6-0 lead and extended it to 7-0 in 4th on a Wil Myers RBI while Moore appeared to settle down. The Rays were coasting once again, and no one had any doubt that they would be punching their ticket to the AL Wild Card Game or at least a one-game playoff. But the dream came crashing down in the sixth inning.
Moore had gone from enigmatic in the first inning to dominant in the subsequent four frames. But out of nowhere, he came apart with one out in the sixth. After striking out Anthony Gose on four pitches to begin the inning, Moore allowed singles to Brett Lawrie and Moises Sierra before Mark DeRosa slammed a two-run double to make it 7-2 Rays. Moore departed in favor of Jake McGee, but McGee allowed a sac fly to J.P. Arencibia and suddenly the score was 7-3. Moore lasted 5.1 innings allowing 3 runs on 6 hits, striking out 4 while walking 3 (all in the first inning). It would be in the hands of the bullpen whether that four-run lead would be enough. At several points, that was very much in question.
McGee began to struggle with one out in the seventh, allowing a Jose Reyes single and an Anthony Gose walk before Brett Lawrie doubled home a run to make it 7-4. In came Joel Peralta, and after he walked Moises Sierra, Joe Maddon got himself ejected for arguing balls and strikes in a bizarre sequence. However bizarre it was, though, it worked. Peralta forced Adam Lind to hit a groundball up the middle to Yunel Escobar, who stepped on the bag and threw to James Loney, who made an off-balance catch at the first base bag to finish off the double play. Things became precarious–Toronto had the go-ahead run at the plate–but the Rays had come through and they had to hope the stress was over. Instead, their brush with fate was just beginning. In the eighth against Peralta, Kevin Pillar grounded a single up the middle to give the Rays two runners on and two outs, bringing Dave Martinez to the mound to bring in Fernando Rodney (Martinez had replaced Maddon after the ejection). But the Rays’ closer could escape unscathed. Jose Reyes lined an RBI single before Gose was right on a Rodney changeup for another RBI hit to make the score 7-6. Rodney walked Brett Lawrie to load the bases again. But Rodney struck out Sierra to end the threat and send the game to the 9th inning.
In 2012, Fernando Rodney saved 48 games with an MLB record 0.60 ERA. He saved that 48th game in Game 162. But in that case, it was a meaningless game as the Rays had already been eliminated. In sharp contrast, 2013′s Game 162 would be the biggest game of Rodney’s career. It was not pretty, not even remotely resembling the fleeting dominance of that season for the ages. However, Rodney somehow got the job done. Rodney allowed a leadoff single to Adam Lind and Ryan Langerhans reached on a fielder’s choice, but Rodney struck out Josh Thole and forced Ryan Goins to line out to finish off the game as the Rays won 7-6.
Sunday’s game was the most nerve-wracking any Rays fan had ever seen. The Rays first inning heroics disappeared as suddenly as they arrived, and all game the sense of impending doom resounded in the minds of everyone on the team. Were the Rays lucky to survive, to make it to another game after how badly they played for the final four innings? Maybe. But when you see your car about to crash, even if negligence got you to that point, it takes something to slam on the breaks and stop mere inches from calamity. The Rays overcame themselves, the Blue Jays, and the specters in the back of their minds to find a way to win. Now they will wait to see what happens next.