ST. PETERSBURG - Evan Longoria heard the roar go through the Tropicana Field crowd. Odd, he thought, since nothing was really happening on the field other than his battle with Yankee pitcher Scott Proctor and even that wasn't particularly exciting.
Oh, yeah, the out-of-town scoreboard. It showed the Red Sox had just lost to the Orioles, meaning a Tampa Bay Rays victory would send them back to the playoffs as the American League wild-card.
At that point, Longoria said he just wanted to get on base, score the winning run.
Moments later, he was watching his line drive sail over the short fence down the left-field line for the home run that capped an incredible comeback in the final game of an improbable season.
It was Rays 8, Yankees 7 in 12 delirious innings, perhaps the most exciting 12 innings ever played at the Trop, certainly during a regular-season game.
"When I saw (the ball) clear the fence it didn't seem real," Longoria said in a champagne-drenched Rays clubhouse. "I'm running around the bases thinking, ‘Wow, did this really happen?'"
The Rays open the American League Division Series on Friday in Arlington, Texas, against the American League West champion Rangers. It is a rematch of last year's ALDS that the Rangers won in five games.
"What a great story," Johnny Damon said.
The Rays, with their tiny $42 million payroll, became the first team in major league history to be nine games out of a postseason spot in September and still reach the playoffs.
The Red Sox, who beefed up their payroll to $142 million in the offseason with the idea of winning the World Series, suffered the biggest September collapse, perhaps the biggest collapse, period, ever.
The Orioles beat the Red Sox on Wednesday with a two-run, ninth inning rally that began with two outs. The winning run scored when left fielder Carl Crawford, the former Ray who took Boston's big money last December, couldn't come up with a game-saving catch.
You want more irony? That fence in left field at the Trop was shortened a few years ago per Crawford's request. Seemed he wanted to rob a few hitters of home runs.
"God bless that little short wall in left field," Ben Zobrist said.
Longoria wrote the final chapter of a storybook regular season, one that began with a drastically reduced payroll that gutted the 2010 American League East championship team as well as a six-game losing streak.
Oh, yeah, the Rays are the first American League team to start the season 0-6 and reach the postseason.
"You know what, I didn't think anything would top the (2004) World Series in Boston, but this does, regardless of whatever happens during the playoffs," Damon said.
Wednesday game was a snapshot of the Rays season: They were down 7-0 after five innings, roared back with six runs in the eighth, received another improbable home run by Dan Johnson in the ninth inning, watched another Red Sox collapse and won at the end.
"The manager kept believing in us. The players kept believing. The pitchers went out there and kept giving us quality starts. Everything fell into place," Damon said.
Longoria capped the six-run eighth with a three-run homer.
Johnson's home run came while pinch-hitting in the ninth. Naturally, there were two outs and he had two strikes before he ripped a pitch from Cory Wade into the right field seats.
"Down to the last strike and it happened, again. I can't explain it, and I'm not going to try to," Johnson said. "I'm just going to go with it. You can't script this any better. This feels great."
Johnson introduced himself to Rays fans in September 2008 when he hit a ninth-inning homer off Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon in Boston that tied the score and started another comeback during that magical year.
"I told B.J. (Upton) when he went up to the plate that this is going to be a re-run of 2008," Longoria said. "I don't know how he does it, but it's pretty incredible to be down to your last couple strikes, or strike, of the game, and just get a new shot at it. A pretty neat moment for him, too."
At that point, the Red Sox were winning, meaning a Rays loss and a Boston win would render Tampa Bay's September to remember meaningless and send the Red Sox to the playoffs.
"We're down 7-0, Red Sox are up their whole game pretty much and next thing you know, we're right back in our game," Zobrist said. "That last inning in the 12th it was just meant to be. It's unbelievable. Dan hit that home run to tie it up in the ninth, and we were going crazy like we just won. That was the biggest hit of the year right there and then Longo came up. It was unbelievable.
"I can't describe it. It's just elation. We're just going crazy on the bench. When we found out that (Boston) lost, we were like, ‘We got this. We got to win this game. Right here."
The Rays did.
"I'm not surprised," Casey Kotchman said. "Obviously that was not probable when you're down 7-0, but that's why you play the games. This is something that you would not believe, but I guess guys are getting wet (with champagne) all over the place, but I guess you got to believe that."
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