Dramatic win in return home
The Rays rally in the ninth inning for a thrilling victory.
By MARC TOPKIN
Published April 7, 2007
ST. PETERSBURG - The upgraded stadium looked sharp. The crowd was large and loud. The owner was proud and happy. The president of Major League Baseball was glowingly optimistic.
But the best thing about Friday's sold-out home opener for the Devil Rays was the way it ended, a raucous celebration exploding out of their dugout after a dramatic 6-5 walkoff win over the Blue Jays.
"This," B.J. Upton said, "is the way we want to play all year."
The Rays were down 5-3 going to the ninth with Toronto veteran closer B.J. Ryan looming on the mound. But a couple of big hits and some small maneuvers changed things dramatically.
Ty Wigginton started it with a one-out single, and rookie Delmon Young sent a searing ball over the rightfield fence to tie it.
Akinori Iwamura capped a four-hit night by dropping a perfect bunt that died on the new slower FieldTurf. After a Jonny Gomes fly out, Elijah Dukes muscled a ball through the infield and Iwamura, seeing the outfield playing deep, alertly went to third.
As Dukes broke for second, Upton bounced a ball that shortstop John McDonald had to rush in on, and as it bounced off his glove, Iwamura bounced across the plate with the winning run, thrilling the crowd of 38,437 that included Gov. Charlie Crist, MLB president Bob DuPuy and principal owner Stuart Sternberg.
"Even if I was a good writer, I couldn't have written it any better," manager Joe Maddon said. "We let it get away, and we got it back. I like the fact that we did not cave in. I felt the at-bats were going to be good in the ninth, and they were."
The players roared out of the dugout and mobbed Iwamura, who got knocked over by Carl Crawford and ended up on the bottom of the pile. He got further welcomed to the majors when starter James Shields put a towel full of shaving cream in his face in the clubhouse.
Young had a hand in the Rays 2-1 losing their lead, making an unsuccessful attempt at a sliding catch that led to a triple for catcher Gregg Zaun in the Jays' three-run seventh.
"I think Delmon kind of redeemed himself," Maddon said.
On the end of the bench, Upton, Crawford and Edwin Jackson were thinking he would. "I don't know if we called it, but it was definitely on our minds," Upton said.
Young claimed there was no special significance or motivation, that it was simply a matter of his bat meeting a Ryan fastball that was out over the plate. But he did note the criticism he has received for swinging so often at the first pitch.
"Now you don't care that I swung at the first pitch," he said.
Iwamura decided on his own to drop the bunt and did it well. Taking third on Dukes' single was even better. And Upton's bouncer provided the difference.
The day seemed special from the start. Fans began milling about the parking lots by late morning, and thousands were lined up with the doors opened a little after 4, with Sternberg, top team officials and players there to greet them.
Sternberg was especially pleased that the game sold out in advance, just the fifth sellout in 726 games at Tropicana Field, and a noticeable improvement from two years ago, when the Rays opened against Toronto but sold just 26,018 tickets and only about 17,000 showed up.
"It means everything," Sternberg said. "What's most important is that people want to come."
DuPuy said he knew it was a good sign when he got stuck in traffic for an hour on his way to the stadium.
"This is clearly one of our rising success stories," he said. "The ballpark looks magnificent. It's a welcoming place. The crowd is enthusiastic."
The Rays took a 3-0 lead on homers by Wigginton, Upton and Iwamura, and six strong innings from Shields.
But the Jays tied it as Shields wore down in the seventh and went ahead when Shawn Camp gave up a two-run homer to Troy Glaus in the eighth.
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8801. View his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/rays/.