ST. PETERSBURG -- With the Rays down to their last strike Wednesday afternoon, Austin Meadows smacked a fastball from Orioles left-hander Tanner Scott to center field and ran out of the batter’s box. After Francisco Mejía and Kevin Kiermaier crossed the plate, Meadows backpedaled onto the outfield turf before his teammates finally caught up to him.
Meadows wanted to take a moment to enjoy his first career walk-off hit and celebrate yet another comeback victory for the Rays.
Down a run heading into the ninth inning despite Randy Arozarena’s two-homer game, the Rays battled back and loaded the bases with two outs before Meadows’ two-run single to center finished a 5-4 win over the Orioles at Tropicana Field.
It was Tampa Bay’s fifth walk-off win, fourth victory when trailing after eight innings and 29th come-from-behind win -- tied with the Red Sox for most in the Majors -- of the season. At this point, it’s simply unfair to count out the Rays until the last out is recorded. They always seem to have another comeback in them.
“We're just never out of it, man,” Meadows said afterward. “I feel like, as a team, our at-bats, our pitching just gets better as the game goes on. Especially when we're in tight games, just the momentum, I feel like, builds on our side. Even if we're down a couple runs, I feel like we always know that we're going to go out there and make it close or win the game.
“For us to continue to have that mindset and never get down, regardless of the score, and play all nine innings, that's what you play the game for.”
Mejía led off the ninth with a single to left against lefty reliever Scott, then manager Kevin Cash went to his bench and expertly deployed the Rays’ reserves. Pinch-hitter Yandy Díaz was caught looking at a questionable called third strike, then Mike Zunino came off the bench to work a walk. Cash sent Kiermaier to pinch-run for Zunino with Arozarena coming to the plate.
Arozarena had already homered twice for his fourth career multi-homer game and his second of the season, and he had his mind set on a third in the ninth.
“I was thinking home run,” Arozarena said through interpreter Manny Navarro, “so we could just finish the game.”
Arozarena swung at a first-pitch slider from Scott and dropped a bloop hit into right field, not quite what he was looking for, but nonetheless loading the bases. Vidal Bruján struck out to bring up Meadows, the Rays’ RBI leader. Meadows knew Scott would lean on his fastball, not wanting to throw anything in the dirt that might skip away for a walk-off wild pitch.
Meadows worked a tough at-bat, fouling off four straight pitches -- three fastballs and a slider -- before ripping a 96.5 mph fastball to center for his first walk-off hit in the Majors. Meadows became the fourth Rays player to deliver a walk-off hit with the team down to its final strike and the first to do so since Carl Crawford on Opening Day 2003.
“Just a guy that’s confident with his approach. You don’t see him expand very often. He can put the ball in play when he needs to,” Cash said. “Stayed in there and came up with just a huge hit to give us a big win and make us feel a lot better getting on a plane and heading to Cleveland.”
They have every reason to feel a lot better about the way Arozarena is hitting now, too.
Arozarena has homered in back-to-back games for the fourth time this season, snapping out of a cold stretch that saw him go without a home run from June 18 until Tuesday night.
Arozarena blasted a leadoff shot to left field off Orioles starter Alexander Wells, the first leadoff home run of his career, and went deep again in the fifth inning. The postseason hero ripped three homers and two doubles in this three-game series against the Orioles, showing encouraging signs that he’s ready to carry Tampa Bay’s lineup the way he did last October.
“When he's hot, man, he's one of the best players on the planet,” Meadows said. “Obviously last year's postseason, everybody knows. We know when he's like that, it's pretty ridiculous. So being able to hit those two home runs today was huge for us, and we know when he gets in a groove, it's pretty unbelievable to watch.”
And yes, Arozarena appears to be getting in a groove. He’s 7-for-12 over his last three games. The home runs he hit Wednesday were crushed at 103.5 mph to left and 105.4 mph to center. He blasted a 104.3 mph homer to center and a 110.5 mph double to left on Tuesday and swatted two hits up the middle (at 105.7 mph and 109.9) on Monday.
Cash noted that Arozarena seemed to be covering every type of pitch thrown at him, a “really, really good sign” for the Rays. It may not be the Randy Arozarena of last October, but he’s happy with the version of himself at the plate now.
“It is really difficult to compare to October last year. I like to think that's from the past and this is a whole 'nother year,” Arozarena said. “I like to say I'm Randy from this July. That's where I like to be. I'm here to be focused, as focused as I was last year, but in a whole different season. And I'm trying to keep that to maintain it for the rest of the year.”