ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — On his way to the plate with two outs in the ninth inning of an American League Division Series elimination game with his team low on oxygen and high on pressure, Jose Lobaton tried to keep his thoughts simple.
The only way the Rays could stay alive was if he somehow cracked the code that was Red Sox closer Koji Uehara.
“‘I was saying, ‘I want to try to hit the ball hard,’ ” he said.
He was thinking two bases, at most.
His reasons were more practical than anything else.
“I’m a slow guy,” he joked. “I don’t need a single.”
He figured he was as likely to see Uehara’s splitter as he was to see the Florida sun in the morning.
Rays bench coach Dave Martinez had given him some small advice on his way to the plate.
“He just said, ‘Move a little bit up,’ ” Lobaton recalled.
He took it, but after waving at Uehara’s first splitter, he decided to take a step back.
Uehara fed him another one in the same spot.
Lobaton knew he got a hold of it.
“I said, ‘Wow, I think I got it.’ ”
All Rays manager Joe Maddon heard was the sound. He wasn’t watching because he was trying to plot as many moves in advance as possible in what had turned into a game of speed chess.
“I swear I was looking down on my [lineup] card,” Maddon said. “You’re preparing for what’s going to happen next.’’
The crack of the bat sounded dramatic and familiar.
“I hear that thing you hear on the radio back in the day when you’re listening to the Cardinals on KMOX, laying on the floor in Hazleton, Pa.,” Maddon said. “That knock.”
When he looked up, he saw the ball drifting toward the rays tank in right-center.
“Nobody hits it out there,” Maddon said. “Nobody does.”
Only two other players had done it. Neither of them were Rays.
Lobaton’s walkoff homer gave the Rays a 5-4 win and guaranteed a Game 4 Tuesday night back at Tropicana Field.
“It’s incredible what he’s done,” Maddon said. “What an interesting, wonderful game to stay solvent with.”
Lobaton rounded the bases knowing with that shot — his first postseason hit — a Rays team that had been taking its last gasps for nearly two weeks still had life.
“It’s weird,” Lobaton said. “You want to do a lot of things. You want to yell. I was running, I just said, ‘Thank God.’ That’s what I was saying.
“I don’t know how to explain it. It’s just different than when you get a base hit. You know you get one more game. You know you’ve got the next day to try to win again.’’
He had been in this spot before. Lobaton came through with walkoff hits twice in the regular season.
“He does have a flare for the dramatic,” Maddon said.
The Rays tied the game on Evan Longoria’s three-run homer in the fifth, then used small ball to take a one-run lead in the eighth, only to see the Red Sox tie the game in the ninth.
“A lot of things are in your mind that moment,” Lobaton said. “It’s something weird, but you just run the bases like a kid, it’s a different feeling.”
Longoria knew how hard it would be for the Rays to get to Uehara, who had allowed just one earned run in his past 38 appearances.
“To be able to come through in that moment, those are the kinds of things we’re going to need to propel us forward,” Longoria said. “To be able to walk off against a guy like him and carry the momentum into tomorrow is huge for us.”
Since the end of the regular season, the Rays have been dangling from a cliff, needing to win a in the last game of the regular season against Toronto, then in a one-game playoff against Texas, and then in a one-game wild card against Cleveland just to reach the ALDS.
They were able to deliver in for the fourth time in a must-win situation by coming through with just their second walkoff win in postseason history.
“We don’t want to lose,” Lobaton said. “That’s a big situation for us now. We have to win. I don’t think we try [to put ourself in this position], but if it’s something that’s been working, whatever’s good for us, we take it.”Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.