ST. PETERSBURG -- As soon as the ball came off Brett Phillips’ bat, the celebration was underway. The energetic outfielder took a few steps out of the batter’s box, passed his bat from his left hand to his right and chucked it seemingly half as high and far as his first career walk-off home run. Then Phillips broke out the airplane run he made famous after his unforgettable walk-off moment in Game 4 of last year’s World Series, a gesture he said he reserves only for “special moments.”
This one was special.
After the Rays staged a game-tying three-run rally in the ninth inning, Phillips launched a three-run blast to right field off reliever Bryan Garcia in the 10th to cap Tampa Bay’s dramatic 7-4 win against the Tigers on Friday night at Tropicana Field. The Rays' 44th come-from-behind win of the season pulled them one step closer to punching their ticket to the postseason and clinching the American League East, as their magic number for both is down to six.
Phillips, the Seminole, Fla., native who grew up a Rays fan, soared around the bases -- arms stretched wide -- and took a big leap onto home plate to let loose with his teammates.
“As he would say, ‘Baseball is fun,’” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “It's definitely fun when you're making plays and getting hits like that.”
Then the hometown hero added one last stop to his celebratory trip around The Trop, jumping on the backstop to salute the fans.
“Just to let this city know, ‘Hey, we hear you. Thanks for coming out tonight. We appreciate you. We love you,’” Phillips said. “I take a little more pride in it. This is my city, where I’m from, so [I] want to recognize them always.”
For eight innings, it seemed like Friday would be a missed opportunity. The Rays left at least one runner on base each frame from the first through the seventh, when one timely shot into the gap or blast over the fence could have changed the complexion of the game, and trailed 4-1 until the ninth.
Apparently, they were saving all their timely hits for the final innings, when they’ve been at their best all season. It was the ninth time Tampa Bay has won when losing by three or more runs in the sixth inning or later, and the seventh game it’s won when trailing after eight innings.
“There’s no doubt that that game, the way it was going, was going to be very frustrating,” Cash said. “For whatever reason, the guys have had a knack for getting hot late in ballgames, and they did again today.”
Their pitching helped, too. After Luis Patiño allowed four runs in the first three innings, the Rays allowed just one hit the rest of the night. That kept the lineup within striking distance, setting up an impressive rally full of what Phillips called “unselfish at-bats.”
Manuel Margot, who came off the bench in the sixth inning to replace an under-the-weather Kevin Kiermaier, hit a comebacker that bounced off reliever Gregory Soto’s left hand and reached on an infield single. Francisco Mejía worked a walk to put two runners on. One pitch after crushing a fly ball into foul territory, Brandon Lowe swatted an elevated slider to center field to load the bases.
Cash then went to his bench, summoning the right-handed-hitting Yandy Díaz to pinch-hit for lefty-hitting Ji-Man Choi. Tigers manager A.J. Hinch countered with right-hander Michael Fulmer, but Díaz delivered a two-run single to center. Lowe, frustrated that he didn’t take the extra base on the throw home, scrambled to third on a wild pitch and scored the tying run on Randy Arozarena’s sacrifice fly.
“Big inning to tie the game there. We’re not getting a Philly walk-off without that kind of inning,” Lowe said. “It was honestly a huge team effort from each guy that we had.”
With Joey Wendle on second base to begin the bottom of the 10th, Taylor Walls worked a walk against Garcia to bring up Phillips. According to Phillips, Cash told him to keep an eye out for a bunt sign -- “I personally took offense to that in my head,” Phillips said, laughing -- but he was cleared to swing away. Garcia fell behind, 3-1, and Phillips unloaded on a 94.8 mph sinker that sailed a Statcast-projected 409 feet out to right field.
“The first thing that goes through my head is, ‘This has got to be a chump-change moment for this guy,’” Lowe said. “He’s got a walk-off on the biggest stage in baseball. Roll out of bed, he’s going to get this done.”
Phillips got it done, and the celebration was on.
“That’s just one of those moments that you don’t know what you’re doing,” Phillips said. “You’re just celebrating. You’re excited. You’re happy.”