ST. PETERSBURG - The Tampa Bay Rays could have built on their early lead Friday afternoon, and James Shields could have shut down the New York Yankees' bats and the Rays could have celebrated Opening Day with a victory.
But where's the fun in that, right?
Instead, Shields struggled, the Yankees rallied, and the Rays faced the daunting task of trying to solve closer extraordinaire Mariano Rivera in the bottom of the ninth.
"He's one those pitchers who make you come back to the dugout scratching your head," Rays first baseman Carlos Peña said.
Not this time.
Desmond Jennings, playing in his first Opening Day in the big leagues, singled to start a two-run rally that lifted the Rays to a 7-6 victory in front of a sellout crowd of 34,078 at Tropicana Field.
"That was a blast, man," Jennings said. "That was a blast."
And it started with a blast — a first-inning grand slam by Peña, whose homecoming was the stuff of legend.
The Rays' all-time home run leader, who spent the 2011 season in Chicago with the Cubs, hit a grand slam off CC Sabathia in the first inning. In the ninth, Peña singled to the base of the left-center-field wall with one out to score Ben Zobrist from third with the winning run.
"That kicks off the season the right way," Evan Longoria said.
Peña was hitless with 11 strikeouts in his previous 14 at-bats against Sabathia before the grand slam. He was 0-for-11 with three strikeouts against Rivera before his game-winning hit.
"I'm so grateful for a day like (Friday)," Peña said.
It was a festive day at the Trop from start to finish as the Rays opened their 15th season.
Jim Dundee, son of the late boxing legend Angelo Dundee, threw out the ceremonial first pitch to Longoria, using the ball Longoria hit over the short fence in left field on the final night of the 2011 season to beat the Yankees and clinch the American League wild card.
The 2011 AL wild-card banner was lifted to the rafters, joining the ones representing the 2008 American League pennant and the 2008 and 2010 American League East championships.
Peña originally was slated to bat seventh, but manager Joe Maddon moved him up to sixth and dropped Elliot Johnson to seventh, because he wanted to separate the lefties at the bottom of the order. Maddon felt the move would make it harder for Yankees manager Joe Girardi to match up his bullpen in the later innings.
A "midnight epiphany," Maddon called his decision before the game.
The move paid off immediately when Peña came to bat in the first key moment of the season.
With runners on second and third and two outs in the first inning, Girardi had Sabathia intentionally walk Sean Rodriguez to load the bases.
Peña made Girardi pay by hitting the second Opening Day grand slam in team history. Fred McGriff hit the first, in 2000 at Minnesota.
Shields couldn't hold the lead, though, and the Yankees soon went ahead 6-4, with the last three runs coming on a third-inning home run by Raul Ibañez.
Longoria homered in the third to make it a one-run game.
Maddon emptied nearly the entire bullpen to keep it a one-run game, and six relievers responded by holding the Yankees hitless over the final three innings.
The Rays missed on a pair of scoring chances but were still ready to take aim at Rivera in the ninth, even if baseball's all-time saves leader was 60-for-61 in save opportunities against the Rays.
"You still got to go out regardless of who comes in," Jennings said. "You still got to try and do what you got to do to win the ballgame. We were confident we could still win."
Jennings singled to center field.
"Dez, he's one of those guys who never gets too high, he never gets too low. He really controls the game," Longoria said. "I've never seen him star-struck or awestruck or look like he's uncomfortable because of the situation."
Zobrist followed with a triple to right-center field to make it a 6-all game.
Rivera then walked Longoria and Luke Scott intentionally to load the bases. Borrowing a page from the Joe Maddon Book of Managing, Girardi set his defense with five infielders and two outfielders.
Rivera struck out Rodriguez, but Peña came through again, earning the first walk-off win of the season and the traditional shaving cream to the face that comes with such an honor.
"A really interesting first game of the season, to say the least," Maddon said.
Tampa Bay Rays