ST. PETERSBURG -- Saturday night could just as easily have been the latest disappointing loss for the Rays. Another big inning wasted, another lead blown and another opportunity missed.
Jeremy Hellickson let San Diego eliminate Tampa Bay's four-run lead in the seventh inning, then Jamey Wright walked in the Padres' go-ahead run. The Rays were down to their last strike in the bottom of the ninth. But Ben Zobrist drew a walk and Evan Longoria blasted a walk-off homer to left-center field, giving the Rays an 8-7 win at Tropicana Field.
The victory brought the Rays to 18-18 on the season, their first .500 record since April 7. They have now won four straight, matching their longest streak of the season, and they avoided losing their 14th game in which they held a lead.
"We've had those [losses] already this year; it would have been among the top-three worst losses of the year," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "But right there to be able to come back is outstanding. It's wonderful."
It started with Zobrist's walk. Padres closer Huston Street induced quick flyouts from Matt Joyce and Kelly Johnson to begin the inning, bringing up Zobrist with the game on the line. He had felt uncomfortable at the plate all night, he said, so he just wanted to get on base somehow and put the game in Longoria's hands. He was a dropped foul tip away, but he turned a 1-2 count into a walk.
"Obviously I'm thankful that he didn't catch it," Zobrist said of catcher Nick Hundley, who came up just short. "In that situation, we've got to like our chances with our best hitter at the plate. ... I really had confidence that he was going to do something. I didn't know it was going to be a home run, but I was ready to score on a double. I just felt confident that he was going to hit the ball hard somewhere, at least.
"And he does have a flair for the dramatic in that situation."
Indeed. Longoria took ball one, swung badly at a slider and took another ball before unloading on an 84-mph slider, crushing it deep to left-center field, raising his hand into the air as he rounded first base. It was Longoria's Major League-leading ninth home run since April 15 and his fifth career walk-off homer and seventh walk-off hit, both Rays records.
"It takes the team to be able to get you up to the plate in those opportunities, and fortunately enough I've been able to come through," Longoria said. "It doesn't get any better than being able to be in the moment and come through, so it feels good."
It felt even better considering how the Rays got to that point. After serving up a two-run homer to Chase Headley in the first inning, Hellickson cruised into the seventh having retired 16 straight batters, only to see his night unravel with Jesus Guzman's pinch-hit grand slam, and the Padres took a 7-6 lead when Wright walked Carlos Quentin, forcing in Everth Cabrera.
Up to that point, Hellickson had been in line for a redeeming victory, an outing in which he made the most of a big lead and pitched deep into the game with relative ease. But all of a sudden, there was Hellickson facing Guzman with the bases loaded, two outs and a full count. Guzman got a hold of Hellickson's sixth pitch, a changeup, and deposited the tying blast into the left-field stands.
"It was a good inning," Padres manager Bud Black said. "Hellickson was pitching so well after the first inning. He had all his pitches working, so our guys hung in there, stayed in the game."
Hellickson had once again received plenty of early run support, too, as the Rays beat up on Padres right-hander Burch Smith, making his Major League debut, in the second inning. They sent 11 batters to the plate, and the first seven reached safely. James Loney crushed the first pitch he saw from Smith to right field, a two-run shot that tied the game, 2-2, and Tampa Bay's lineup kept piling on the runs.
"I'm very happy we won the game; at the same time, I'm very disappointed with myself," said Hellickson, who has pitched with a lead in each of his last five starts but won only one of them. "It's been three, four games in a row now I've done the same thing. I'm happy the guys came back and picked me up."
Maddon was not quite as pleased. He said the blown leads have "got to stop," calling them "inappropriate" for a team trying to play into October. Maddon repeated several times in his postgame media session that the Rays would "rather be good than lucky," meaning they could not afford to waste more leads like they did Saturday.
"That's not going to happen very often," Maddon said. "That is the anomaly, what happened right there. We're fortunate Longo was in the right spot. We're fortunate that Zo gets it as a hitter, and then you have all this talent that comes together in that particular moment. But you can't go to the dance playing like that. You get leads, you got to put the other team away."
But Saturday, it all worked out for the Rays.
Their most patient hitter worked the walk they needed. Their star third baseman, whose day started at 7 a.m., when he left his house to attend a walk to support cancer research, came through with yet another big hit. And what could easily have been a downcast clubhouse turned into another postgame party.
"It was a long day," Longoria said, smiling. "But it was well worth it."