ST. PETERSBURG — Even before Tuesday night’s result in Game 4 of the American League Division Series, even before the Rays knew if they had extended or extinguished their season, one thing was certain.
Jose Lobaton already had earned his spot in Rays lore following his two-out, pinch-hit, ninth-inning, walk-off home run in Tampa Bay’s 5-4 victory against the Boston Red Sox in an unforgettable Game 3.
Maybe he’s forever in Red Sox lore, too.
Jose (Bleeping) Lobaton?
Who could’ve predicted such a thing?
Lobaton, a switch-hitting catcher, was a .228 career hitter with nine home runs in 495 major-league at-bats. Koji Uehara, Boston’s lights-out closer, had not allowed a homer since June 30.
In Tampa Bay’s ninth inning, there were two quick outs. Rays manager Joe Maddon picked out Lobaton.
“I was just trying to hit the ball hard and see what happens,’’ said Lobaton, whose parents were watching in his native Venezuela.
Maddon’s expectations were tempered.
“I swear I was looking down at my (lineup) card and preparing for what’s going to happen,’’ Maddon said. “Their pitchers are so good. And then I hear that thing you hear on the radio back in the day when you’re listening to the Cardinals on KMOX, laying on the floor in Hazelton, Pa.’’
The crack of a bat.
Uehara threw a low 0-1 splitter. Lobaton reached down, golfing it high and deep, toward the Rays’ touch tank in center field.
Maddon looked up, almost in disbelief.
“Lobaton doing what he did, that doesn’t happen every day, every decade, every two decades,’’ Maddon said.
It cleared the wall, then glanced off the glove of Rays fan William Skinner, who wore the gray No. 29 road jersey of Dan Johnson, the franchise’s ultimate lightning-in-a-bottle home run hitter.
Lobaton’s home run ball had landed in the 35-foot, 10,000-gallon ballpark aquarium, the domain of 30 cownose rays, mild-mannered sea animals.
At Tropicana Field, home of the cownose rays, there was bedlam.
“I had people wanting to take pictures of me with the ball,’’ said Skinner, 23, a campus security dispatcher at Eckerd College who was in his season-ticket seat (Section 150, Row V, Seat 12). “I almost didn’t have time to react. It happened in slow motion. I wish I could’ve caught it on the fly, but I’m glad to have the ball.’’
Through a Rays’ Fan Host, Skinner got the ball signed by Lobaton late Monday night. The ball was in Skinner’s glove on Tuesday night, where he received a smattering of celebrity applause as he reached his seat.
Meanwhile, in the library-quiet Red Sox clubhouse on Monday night, Uehara broke the silence.
“It comes with the territory,’’ Uehara said through an interpreter. “It’s a hard thing to swallow. As long as a player has a bat in his hand, something like that can happen.’’
In the Rays clubhouse, another chapter was added to the legend of Lobaton, the man who insists on ice cream to celebrate his game-winning hits.
“Lobaton is right up there with the top young guys I’ve been around (in clutch situations),’’ Rays first baseman James Loney said. “He wants that moment.’’
Regardless of what happened in Tuesday night’s Game 4, Lobaton’s moment was destined for Rays immortality.