ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Carlos Pena thrust his arms in the air, rounded first base and headed right into a wild celebration in the middle of the Tropicana Field infield.
Pena defied long odds against CC Sabathia and did it again against Mariano Rivera, lifting the Tampa Bay Rays to a thrilling 7-6 season-opening victory over the New York Yankees on Friday.
Pena hit an early grand slam off Sabathia, then completed a ninth-inning comeback with an RBI single off Rivera.
Pena finished 3 for 5 with five RBIs in his return to the Rays after a year with the Chicago Cubs. All that after a spring in which he hit .107 and struggled so much that manager Joe Maddon initially penciled him into the No. 7 spot.
Maddon had a change of heart Friday, shifting the slugger into the sixth spot.
“Your heart starts racing in that moment and you try to control yourself as much as possible,’’ Pena said. “I tried to slow myself down and breathe and take it one pitch at a time, as easy as you can possibly make it. Instead of building the situation up you try to bring it down.’’
Rivera (0-1) had been 60 of 61 in save chances against the Rays. But after Desmond Jennings opened the ninth with a single against baseball’s career saves leader, Ben Zobrist tripled home the tying run.
The 42-year-old Yankees closer intentionally walked the next two batters to load the bases and struck out Sean Rodriguez. Pena, who was 0 for 11 lifetime against Rivera, won it by driving a 1-2 pitch off the base of the wall in left-center field for his fifth RBI of the game.
Pena hit his slam in the first. Evan Longoria hit a solo homer in the Rays third, and it stayed 6-5 until the ninth.
“He’s the greatest closer in the history of the game and we all know that,’’ Pena said of Rivera. “He has that illusion in his ball. You swing where the ball is at and it’s not there anymore. He has perplexed hitters throughout his career. He’s the best closer in baseball, and that’s for a reason.’’
Rivera’s rough outing was the latest in a recent series of bad outings by big league closers. Jose Valverde, Chris Perez, and Boston’s Alfredo Aceves all struggled a day earlier.
“My fault. I felt good. I don’t make excuses,’’ Rivera, whose other blown save against the Rays came in 2005. “I just left the ball up,’’ he said.
Rivera, beginning his 18th major league season, had converted 27 consecutive opportunities against the Rays.