ST. PETERSBURG -- A couple of long balls, a short one and a little cloak and dagger made for a memorable 8-7 Rays win over the Orioles on Wednesday night at Tropicana Field.
After falling behind 4-0, the Rays stormed back to take a 7-5 lead, saw Fernando Rodney blow his first save after going 48-for-50 in save opportunities last year, then hoped for something good to happen when Matt Joyce stepped to the plate to lead off the bottom of the ninth with the scored tied at 7.
Facing a 3-1 count, Joyce hammered Tommy Hunter's fifth pitch into the right-field stands to end the topsy-turvy affair with a walk-off homer.
"Man, that's a great way to jump start the season," Joyce said. "No better way to have your first win with a walk-off and just get things rolling that way. I mean, that's a great feeling."
Joyce arrived home to a mob scene that moved to the clubhouse, where the Rays celebrated in the unique style they do after every win. The American League East rivals will square off in a 3:10 ET Thursday afternoon contest to determine the series.
The Orioles appeared to be in good shape in the early going. Chris Davis hammered a three-run homer off Jeremy Hellickson in the first inning and added a two-out RBI single in the sixth to put the Orioles on top 4-0.
Meanwhile, Orioles starter Wei-Yin Chen dodged early damage thanks to his infielders. Rays leadoff hitters singled to start the first three innings before getting erased via three double plays. Chen hung five zeros on the scoreboard before Ben Zobrist singled home Desmond Jennings with two outs in the sixth to cut the lead to 4-1.
That's when the chess match between the two managers began to play out. Orioles manager Buck Showalter and Rays manager Joe Maddon are both regarded as out-of-the-box thinkers and ultimate strategists who like to play their cards close to the vest. So when Showalter brought in right-hander Luis Ayala to face the right-handed-hitting Evan Longoria, both manager's minds -- fueled by copious amounts of data -- began their high-speed game of chicken.
Designated hitter Shelley Duncan stood on deck while left-hander Brian Matusz warmed in the bullpen with Longoria at the plate. After Longoria stroked a single to left, the next play fell to Maddon: Let the right-handed-hitting Duncan bat against Ayala, or bring in the left-handed-hitting Joyce as a pinch-hitter, which would have prompted Showalter to bring in Matusz?
Maddon went with Duncan -- who was making his first start for the Rays -- and he responded to his manager's confidence by depositing a 1-0 offering into the left-field stands to tie the score at 4.
"It's your choice right there, which one do you prefer?" Maddon said. "I liked Duncan better against Ayala than Matusz versus Joyce."
Ultimately, Maddon's choice would pay a rich dividend for the Rays in the seventh after the Orioles took a 5-4 lead in the top half of the inning.
Right-hander Pedro Strop took over for the Orioles, at which point Maddon began to roll out all of his available left-handers, beginning with pinch-hitter Sam Fuld, who lined out to start the inning. Joyce then pinch-hit, and the Orioles' defense shifted. Rather than hit into the clutter on the right side of the diamond, Joyce bunted to the left side and beat out a single.
"I wasn't expecting that bunt because he's kind of a power hitter," Strop said. "We were up by one run and a power hitter like that can just come in and tie the game. I was just focusing on putting the ball wherever I wanted. … It was a good bunt, too. I don't know him as a good bunter. It surprised me."
Kelly Johnson followed with a single to center that moved Joyce to third. Strop then uncorked a wild pitch that allowed Joyce to cross the plate and tie the score at 5. One out later, left-handed pinch-hitter James Loney doubled home Johnson. Zobrist then singled home Loney to put the Rays up 7-5.
Matt Wieters hit an RBI single in the eighth to move the Orioles to within one run of the lead. Rodney walked Nolan Reimold to start the ninth before Brian Roberts doubled to left to drive him home and tie the score at 7.
"We just play these kinds of games with them," Maddon said. "They have really ascended within our division and in baseball in general. They're very difficult to beat. You have to do everything right. … So when we play the Orioles, whether it's here or up there, it's this kind of game."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.