ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Shane Victorino was the last guy out as his teammates dressed and boarded the bus for the airport following a dramatic 4-3 comeback win over the Tampa Bay Rays Thursday night.
The box score will not show that he was the hero. That status belonged to Will Middlebrooks.
But the intangibles keep growing for Victorino.
The baseball world was surprised when the Red Sox handed him a three-year, $39 million contract in December. He was coming off his worst professional season, splitting time with the Phillies — the team he helped win a championship in 2008 — and the Dodgers.
Dodgers GM Ned Colletti said it best after the Red Sox signed Victorino.
“That guy is a winning ballplayer,” Colletti said. “He plays hard. His enthusiasm is contagious. He will be nothing but a positive force.”
Phillies manager Charlie Manuel knew he had lost the soul of his team, much like Johnny Damon was in Boston in 2004.
When it comes to showing heart and courage and guts, Victorino doesn’t hold back.
The last couple of weeks he’s given us one example after another. He crashes into walls, dives for balls, makes acrobatic catches, dives back into second, dives headfirst into home. It’s not that he’s reckless. He’s just, well, a little determined.
Victorino made two superb catches in the eighth inning Thursday night, catches that kept the Rays off the bases and the Red Sox with a manageable 3-1 deficit.
On the first one, off the bat of Jose Lobaton, he crashed into the right-field wall. His back was still balky from his hard collision with the right-field wall at Fenway last Sunday, when he raced back in vain to rob a home run. And that came a week after he returned from a seven-game absence caused by back tightness.
“I’ll be OK,” Victorino said with conviction after getting treatment in the trainer’s room. “Looking forward to this flight to Minnesota. I just hope it doesn’t tighten up. I’m a little sore right now, but it’s not as bad as the last time.”
Victorino isn’t used to crashing into walls at this rate. That’s because he used to be a center fielder and there’s simply more real estate out there.
“Part of the game,” Victorino said. “I’ll be all right.”
Victorino knew when he signed with the Red Sox that he would be shifting to right. The Red Sox wanted a more athletic player to cover that area at Fenway. Victorino also has a good, accurate arm.
“There’s only one way to play the game,” Victorino said. “Play the game hard and make as many outs as you can. In the process you aggravate things. But I feel OK. Just got to keep plugging.”
He described his latest jarring encounter.
“It was from the ball against the wall, jolted me a little bit,” he said. “As I continued, it got a little tighter. And then I slid on the next ball [to right]. At least I don’t feel it’s as bad as it was before. I hope it doesn’t get any worse than it is right there. The fact we won helps a little bit. We have to play 27 outs and that’s what we did tonight.
“We have a great center fielder and I signed on to play right so I don’t look at it any other way. I don’t worry about it. There’s more ground in center. You don’t get the balls that are up against the wall in center. So as I keep playing out there I know what I’m up against. But if you’re going to tell me to change the way I play, no chance.”
Victorino, the Red Sox’ leading hitter with runners in scoring position (.360), scored the team’s first run after doubling in the fourth inning. He wasn’t part of the ninth-inning rally, having made the final out in the top of the eighth. He didn’t return to the field for the bottom of the ninth.
“It [stinks] that a teammate has to come off the bench and he had to play defense,” he said. “I don’t want that to happen. I never want that to happen. But [manager] John [Farrell] felt that if I couldn’t hit, then why go out and play defense? I will say the back feels a lot better than it did when I first came out of the game. I did my exercises and I felt better than I did.”
He must feel like he’s been killing himself the past few weeks.
“That’s just the way I’m gonna play,” he said. “I don’t intend on slowing down. I don’t want to slow down. No sense being out there if I have fear of that. I might as well just sit out. It wouldn’t be me. It just wouldn’t be me if I had to hold back or be careful and all that stuff. You see a ball being hit and you do everything you can to make the play.”
The Sox trailed by two runs in the eighth. The Rays could have mounted a rally and added to their lead, but Victorino shut it down. The Sox got to Rays closer Fernando Rodney in the ninth and pulled ahead on Middlebrooks’s bases-loaded double.
Victorino grimaced as he bent over to finish packing his bag in the clubhouse. You could tell he was in pain.
And part of him enjoyed it, because he had left everything he had on the field.Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.