It was a good pitch, down, and Victor Martinez put it on the ground. This was what Brian Stokes wanted. With two on and one out in the ninth, Rays leading by two, it was almost the double play that capped a heartening win. It was almost two of three from the Indians and a masterful victory for James Shields, a save for Stokes.
But it was none of those things: it was a single, it got through the middle, it led to Stokes' complete unraveling, and it took away all the good that had seemed, by the ninth, to be guaranteed.
What an afternoon it had been: with the exception of one mistake that Jhonny Peralta turned into a two-run homer, Shields was not only dominating, but smart. He used his changeup as a knockout punch against a powerful lineup, striking out batters named Hafner and Martinez with slow tosses. The change was his theme, the curve a variation, the fastball an occasional surprise. In the end, he'd gone eight and tied a team record with twelve strikeouts while working almost exclusively in the mid-to high eighties and lower.
When he left, though, he hadn't been quite enough: the game was tied at two.
Cue the offense, and some luck, in the bottom of the eighth. After Aki Iwamura walked, Dioner Navarro bunted toward first. Jake Westbrook, also superb enough to be pitching that late, waited for it to go foul. Instead, it died on the line. Two on. No outs. Westbrook gone.
B. J. Upton stepped in and roped a single up the middle, scoring Iwamura. He stood on first, having broken the tie and virtually assured a happy story for the day. A few minutes later, Navarro scored on a wild pitch, and the narrative seemed clinched. There was a big-ish crowd cheering, a growing sense of possibility, a visit from the Yankees coming tomorrow. There was a sense that with this series win, the Rays could hang with the tough teams now.
When Stokes hit Grady Sizemore to begin the ninth, it felt like no big deal, considering the insurance run. When Jason Michaels flied out, all seemed back in order. Hafner walked, which made sense; you weren't going to let him beat you.
Then Stokes made his pitch to Martinez, got his ground ball. A few feet to the left or right, and the day would have sparkled with hope and victory. But the ball got through, and the next batter, Ryan Garko, hit a three-run homer.
That was it. The rest of the loss was a formality. The crowd of nearly twenty-thousand booed, and everything--except for the faint memory of some thrilling baseball--was ruined.