ST. PETERSBURG - It was a little more than an hour before the biggest game of the season when Tampa Bay Rays first baseman Casey Kotchman left the clubhouse on a stretcher, headed to St. Anthony's Hospital with tightness in his chest.
The Rays maintained it was for precautionary reasons. All tests proved negative, and Kotchman was released later in the evening.
But the incident added a surreal feel to what is a surreal season for the Rays.
"It's just another twist to the saga that we've got going on over here," third baseman Evan Longoria said.
The saga continued with a come-from-behind 5-3 win against the first-place Yankees that kept the Rays tied with the Red Sox atop the wild-card standings with one more game to play.
The Rays could wrap up the final American League playoff spot with a win tonight and a Red Sox loss in Baltimore.
Or, they can meet the Red Sox at 4:07 p.m. Thursday at Tropicana Field for a one-game playoff to decide the wild card, provided the Rays and Red Sox have similar outcomes tonight.
A Rays loss and a Red Sox win ends this magical mystery ride for Joe Maddon's lads.
The Rays, however, feel their season will not end any time soon. They feel they are about to write the how-to book on overcoming a nine-game deficit in September to reach the postseason. That's never been done before in major-league history, but since 2008, the Rays have a knack of making the impossible seem possible.
"There's definitely something special about this team," right fielder Matt Joyce said.
It was Joyce's three-run homer off former Rays closer Rafael Soriano in the seventh that proved the difference in the game Tuesday.
"I think that definitely tops any kind of big hit I ever had," said Joyce, the Tampa native. "The season was pretty much riding on it."
That game-changing moment came after Longoria started a 5-4-3 triple that helped starting pitcher Jeremy Hellickson escape a bases-loaded situation in the sixth after the Yankees had scored once to take a 3-2 lead.
"Are you kidding me? It was momentum, it was everything, it changed everything," said Sean Rodriguez, who moved over from shortstop and replaced Kotchman at first base.
"Bases loaded, nobody out, you're kind of in that 'Uh-oh' mindset," Joyce said.
From "Uh-oh" to "Oh yes!"
"It was a big momentum swing," shortstop Reid Brignac said.
Hellickson was not at his sharpest, but the Rays gave him a 2-0 lead to work with on Zobrist's 20th home run of the season, which came in the second inning with Johnny Damon on first.
The Yankees came back and eventually took a 3-2 lead in the sixth after a leadoff walk to Alex Rodriguez and consecutive doubles by Mark Teixeira and Nick Swisher. Hellickson walked Jorge Posada intentionally and the infielders gathered at the mound while pitching coach Jim Hickey came out to talk to Hellickson.
"He just told me to calm down a little bit and get a ground ball," Hellickson said.
That's when Longoria turned to Zobrist and said, "If it's hit right to me I'm coming to you, Zo."
"It was a specific thought in my head when I left the mound," Longoria said. "I said to myself, 'This is one of those plays where if it is hit to me, it's going to be an instinct play,'" Longoria said after the game.
Russell Martin smacked the first pitch from Hellickson down the third-base line, where Longoria was waiting. He grabbed the ball, stepped on third and started the third triple play in team history.
"It absolutely changed everything around," Joyce said.
Perhaps even the season.
The Rays trailed by a run and knew the Yankees were going to bring in Soriano, David Roberts and Mariano Rivera. Getting a lead before that was imperative.
"Sure, but at the same time, anything is possible," Joyce said. "We've gotten Rivera before. We're never going to say die."
Enter Joyce, who followed walks to B.J. Upton and Longoria with his 19th home run of the season.
The rest was up to Brandon Gomes, the rookie reliever who replaced Jake McGee, the rookie reliever, who replaced Hellickson, a leading candidate for the AL Rookie of the Year award.
Kyle Farnsworth, the journeyman reliever-turned-closer who replaced Soriano and Soriano's team-record 45 saves in 2010, closed the door on the Yankees in the ninth.
Now comes what Maddon called the biggest game of the season. Of course, he's said that about every game during these past two weeks.
"We just have to worry about ourselves, play our game, try to win our game and not worry about the other side of it," Maddon said. "That will eventually take care of itself."
Tampa Bay Rays