HOUSTON - A little more than an hour before Thursday’s first pitch, Rays manager Joe Maddon sat in the third-base dugout at Minute Maid Park and spoke about Yunel Escobar, dropping phrases such as “All-Star” and “Gold Glove” into the conversation.
“I’d like to see the shortstop who’s played better than he has this year,” Maddon said.
Maddon mentioned Baltimore’s J.J. Hardy and a few others, then returned to Escobar.
“I’m telling you, this guy has been impressive, consistently impressive,” Maddon said.
Then Escobar went out and played a game that was impressive, consistently impressive.
He helped the Rays beat the Astros 7-5 in 11 innings, with his glove and with his bat.
Escobar drove home the go-ahead run in the 11th with a double to right field. That was after he drove home what appeared to be two big insurance runs in the eighth inning with a double to the hill in deep center field.
In between doubles, Escobar prevented the Astros from doing further damage in their three-run eighth inning by ranging to his right to field a grounder by Matt Martinez and starting a have-to-see-it-to-believe-it inning-ending double play.
“He had himself a heck of a day,” Maddon said.
Escobar’s contributions were big on a day when the Rays again struggled with runners in scoring position (3-for-13) and Joel Peralta blew the three-run lead in the eighth by allowing a three-run homer.
It also enabled the Rays to take three of the four games during the series with the lowly Astros, a series that began a stretch of 14 games against the Astros, White Sox and Twins.
Make no mistake, the Rays knew how important the series was as they try to keep the first-place Red Sox within sight.
“That was a big win for us,” said Wil Myers, who doubled in the eighth and scored on Escobar’s double. “Everyone in the dugout was talking about it. Everyone knew we had to win this game.”
Said Maddon, “That’s a real tough getaway game. A day game, I know Houston has been struggling, but they gave us everything we can handle, and I give them a lot of credit for how they played the game. … We feel fortunate coming away winning three of four.”
Desmond Jennings doubled and scored in the first inning on a grounder to third by Evan Longoria to give the Rays their obligatory one-run first-inning lead during this series. But the Astros went ahead 2-1 on Rays starter Chris Archer with a solo home run by Brett Wallace in the fourth inning and a sacrifice fly by Jake Elmore in the fifth.
The Rays tied it in the seventh inning when Escobar reached on a fielder’s choice, moved to third on another double by Jennings and scored on a wild pitch.
Jose Lobaton hit into a fielder’s choice with the bases loaded in the eighth to score pinch-runner Sam Fuld with the go-ahead run. Escobar than appeared to deliver the deciding hit with his two-run double.
But Wallace lifted a three-run homer into the right-field seats off Peralta in the eighth to help send the game into extra innings.
Kyle Farnsworth, Jamey Wright and Fernando Rodney pitched the final 32/3 innings to make Escobar’s contributions stand up and back their manager’s opinion of their shortstop.
“I’m happy Joe feels that way,” Escobar said through bench coach Dave Martinez, who provided the translation. “I just go out there and play the game and have fun. It’s the first time in my career I really feel like I’m having fun and can be myself and enjoy playing the game.”
Escobar tied a season high with his three hits and three RBIs. He also played his 42nd errorless game.
After a slow start to the season offensively (.089 average on April 17), Escobar has his average up to .250.
It was that slow start, Maddon said, that has people looking elsewhere for All-Star shortstops.
“This guy here is definitely an All-Star-caliber player and absolutely a Gold Glove-caliber player,” Maddon said. “As he continues to hit, more people will take notice. That’s just the way this game works.”