Oh Rays, can you see: Zobrist clutch for Tampa Bay
ST. PETERSBURG -- The September night opened with Julianna Zobrist singing the national anthem and ended with Ben Zobrist blasting a two-run homer in the 11th inning that propelled the Tampa Bay Rays to a stirring 3-1 victory on Friday over their nemesis, the Texas Rangers.
Talk about a husband-wife team capturing the moment at Tropicana Field.
But in between, baseball's overused adage that good pitching beats good hitting was in full bloom.
Except for Michael Young's fifth-inning homer, the Rays completely shut down the American League's best offense in Friday night's opener of an important three-game weekend series as Tampa Bay attempts to claw its way back to another postseason.
Oh yes, the postseason. The last time the Rangers were at Tropicana was last Oct. 4, when they won, 4-3, to eliminate the Rays from the AL Division Series. Jeremy Hellickson, who pitched six solid innings Friday night, was the loser in that Game 4.
And the year before that -- Oct. 12, 2010 -- Texas ended Tampa Bay's season here with a 5-1 verdict in the ALDS.
Maybe that's why the Rangers' first -- and belated -- appearance at Tropicana in 2012 oozed with the feeling of playoff baseball.
A thousand miles away at Camden Yards in Baltimore, the Yankees were beating the amazing Orioles, 8-5, to regain sole possession of first place in the rugged AL East, setting the stage for the Rays to gain ground in their quest for a Wild Card berth.
After the Rangers, who have a commanding lead in the AL West, leave town, the Rays go to Baltimore for a three-game series against the Orioles and then move on to New York for a crucial weekend set at Yankee Stadium.
The Rays' pitching staff leads the AL in ERA (3.24), strikeouts (1,148) and opponents' batting average (.231). Only one pitching staff in the past 25 years, the 1999 Boston Red Sox, has led the AL in all three categories.
And as Tampa Bay tries to repeat last September's march to October baseball, its vaunted arms will be its No. 1 weapon.
After Young homered to left field with one out in the fifth inning, Hellickson walked David Murphy. But from that point on, the Rays' pitching retired the next 17 Rangers in order before Murphy singled through the middle to open the 11th.
Wade Davis struck out the next two batters, and with Ian Kinsler batting, Murphy was cut down attempting to steal second base.
B.J. Upton worked a walk to start the Rays' 11th. Zobrist then sent a 2-0 Mark Lowe fastball screaming to the right-field seats and it was over.
"I've never had a walk-off homer before," Zobrist gushed. "That's the first time I've ever done it. Today was a fun day -- for her [Julianna] to be able to sing the anthem. We all got to experience a fun night. I feel very blessed we were able to win the game tonight.
"The Rangers are really a tough team. For our pitchers to hold them to just one run for 11 innings is pretty good. We still have our work cut out for us."
Rays manager Joe Maddon remembered the last time the Rangers were at Tropicana, it "was a sad day. Tonight was a typical game against those guys. They match up very well against us and vice versa. We have pitched well against their offense, but have not hit their pitching well enough and that has given them the edge this year."
Unless Oakland makes a bold move, Texas should repeat as AL West champs. The Rangers have been in first place virtually all season.
"It was a pitchers' duel out there all night, and the Rays got the last blow," said Texas manager Ron Washington. "You never want to lose. It was a real good game. They had the last opportunity, and they got it done."
For Hellickson, run support from his teammates has been a problem. Evan Longoria's fourth-inning homer was the only run the Rays scored while he was on the mound Friday night, and in his previous six starts, Tampa Bay has scored just four runs.
"He had really good stuff tonight," said Maddon. "He made one mistake to Young. It wasn't an awful pitch, it was just good hitting on [Young's] part. Otherwise, [Hellickson] was almost perfect."
Hellickson said "the fifth inning was pretty long, and it took it out of me a little bit, but with the bullpen we have, there is no reason to not go to them. I can't say enough [about the bullpen]."
"It was not good tonight, it was great," said Maddon.
Added Washington: "Their bullpen did a good job of shutting us down, and we did a good job of shutting them down -- until the bottom of the 11th inning."
With lefty David Price missing Saturday's start because of a sore shoulder, the Rangers won't have to face the Rays' best pitcher, which should be a plus for the powerful Texas offense.
Maybe the Rays should consider bringing Julianna Zobrist back to sing the national anthem.
"I'm sure she'd be ready and willing," said Ben.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.