HOUSTON - Of all the decisions Rays manager Joe Maddon had to make Sunday afternoon, and he made a lot of decisions during a long afternoon at the ball yard, the biggest was really no decision at all.
Trailing by a run in the eighth inning, bases loaded, two outs and a right-hander on the mound, Maddon called for Matt Joyce to bat for Sean Rodriguez.
Never mind that in doing so, Maddon used the last position player on the bench, and, having already switched catchers, took his emergency third catcher out of the game.
Never mind that if Joyce didn't come through, a pitcher would have to bat in the ninth with the Rays trailing.
"Joyce, be ready," bench coach Dave Martinez yelled in the dugout as B.J. Upton batted with two outs and Joyce said he reached for his batting helmet, batting gloves and, of course, his bat.
After Upton walked to load the bases and set up the big moment, Joyce stepped to the plate against Mark Melancon and drove a two-run double into the right-field corner that put the Rays ahead of the Astros for good in a game they eventually won 14-10.
"You got to do it," Evan Longoria said. "In the situation like that where the game is tight and you got a chance to win the game, you really can't save a guy like (Joyce) the way he's been swinging the bat. I think it would be the wrong move to leave him on the bench, and if we don't get another opportunity to score, what good is he sitting on the bench."
Joyce's hit was one of many big hits Sunday at Minute Maid Park. In fact it was one of 33 by the two teams, including a combined 18 extra-base hits — the most in 14 years of Rays baseball.
Included were eight extra-base hits by the Rays — a pair of home runs by Longoria and another by B.J. Upton, his third in as many games off Astros pitching, and doubles by Longoria, Elliot Johnson, Ben Zobrist, Casey Kotchman and, of course, Joyce.
Maddon used 21 players, including Wade Davis as a pinch-hitter in the ninth. Davis collected his first major-league hit, but didn't have the honor of collecting the first hit by a Rays pitcher this season. That belonged to starter Jeff Niemann, who slapped an opposite-field double down the first-base line in the second.
Niemann, staked to a three-run first-inning lead on Upton's 11th home run of the season, gave up five runs in his three innings, which was an indication that this was going to be one of those ballgames.
"It seemed like every inning both sides had two or three runners on base," Upton said. "We knew it was going to be a dog fight. We knew it was going to be a long one. We just didn't know how long."
"It was back and forth, I don't know if there is a word for it," Longoria added. "These are the kind of games we need to win. You know, just find a way to win. Joe says there is no ugly win, but (Sunday) was one of those games where mentally it's easy to kind of check out, but overall as a team we did a pretty good job of staying in it and cashing in on opportunities."
Check out, perhaps, because the Rays had won four of the first five games on the road trip, including the first two from the Astros, who have the worst record in the major leagues. Yet the Astros kept coming back, forcing Maddon to use all his resources.
"National League games are a blast," Maddon said. "They really challenge you mentally."
Joyce cashed in on the biggest opportunity, because Maddon decided it was time to go for the win.
A tough call?
"It is and it isn't. If you have a chance to really think about it, it really isn't," Maddon said. "The one thought that was overriding was the bases were loaded, there were two outs, this is your best chance to win the game right there, and that's what I went with."
Joyce said he was ready to pinch-hit as early as the second inning, though he expected his chance would come three spots later when J.P. Howell was scheduled to bat.
"After the fact, after everything played out I was happy he took the chance there," Joyce said. "With how it worked out, the big opportunity, (Maddon) definitely made the right decision."
Tampa Bay Rays