CLEVELAND - Will Rhymes, how about it?
The fortunes of a team that sleepwalked through the first half of Sunday’s game and looked headed toward the All-Star break with anything but the momentum they so craved changed when the Rays’ light-hitting second baseman homered off Indians All-Star closer Chris Perez in the ninth inning, jump-starting a three-run rally that gave the Rays a 7-6 victory.
The victory was only the fifth in their last 14 games, but it did earn the Rays a split of the four-game series at Progressive Field and gave them a little push going into the four-day All-Star break that begins today.
"Feels like a big relief right now, just going into the break and feeling like we’re reeling a little bit as a team, to get that kind of a win is a much better feeling," right fielder Ben Zobrist said.
The Rays were in first place and a season-best 11 games over .500 on May 4 but have gone 26-33 since then. They are in third place now, but Sunday’s win leaves them four games over .500 and only a half-game behind the Baltimore Orioles for the second wild-card spot.
"Going into the break, it’s nice to get the W, but being down two (runs) against one of the best (closers in baseball) and our offense hasn’t been doing all that great and to come up with that, to get it right there against one of the best, it was a big confidence boost to us," shortstop Elliot Johnson said. "Now we’re going into the break and hopefully we can pick it back up."
The Rays were hoping for a strong start Sunday from James Shields, good defense and just enough offense to win the final game of the first half. That didn’t happen.
Shields and third baseman Jeff Keppinger committed errors in the third inning, and the Indians took a 5-0 lead into the sixth. As for the offense, Indians starter Zach McAllister didn’t allow a hit until Keppinger singled with one out in the fifth.
"He was pretty much lights out and we had a really hard time with him," Zobrist said. "That’s the part of the game where as a team you just have to weather the storm and do the best you can to get something going and hope that when one guy gets a hit, you can pile them on top of each other, and that’s how you score a lot of runs."
The Rays did that in the sixth inning when they scored four unearned runs with two outs, thanks to a dropped throw at second by Indians shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera. Designated hitter Luke Scott, now the hottest hitter on the team, drove in two runs with a double, and slumping left fielder Desmond Jennings singled home two more runs.
The comeback appeared to be just a tease as Joel Peralta allowed a homer to Shin-Soo Choo with two outs in the eighth inning, giving Perez, who converted his last 24 save opportunities, an insurance run to work with.
But Rhymes sent a buzz through the Rays dugout with his first homer of the season, a line drive into the right-field seats.
Johnson followed and lined the next pitch into center field. With Carlos Peña up, Johnson took off for second and would have had the base stolen easily except Peña swung and hit a fly ball to shallow center field. With the outfielders playing deep, Indians center fielder Michael Brantley tried to make a diving catch. He missed, and Peña ended up on third base with an RBI triple that tied the game.
"Rhymes has not hit a home run since 1873 and Carlos has not hit a ball in that spot since he was 10 and we won the game," Maddon said. "That’s how it works sometimes."
Zobrist drove in Peña to give the Rays the lead, but the game was far from over.
The Indians reached Rays All-Star closer Fernando Rodney for a pair of two-out hits, but Rodney was able to close the door for his 25th save of the season.
"I always talk about it, if you keep pressing then baseball comes back to you and you get rewarded," Maddon said.
Not lost on Maddon was the way the Rays were rewarded, winning the game off a very good closer and in a park that has produced some awful times for the Rays over the years.
"Ain’t it the truth," Maddon said. "I’ve seen it on the other side … for years it’s been the other way around in this yard. They’re very good at it, but of course, our secret weapon got us going with the homer to right."
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