Those who believe in momentum in sports will argue that a single game can mean much more than the one win or loss it counts for in the standings. Indeed, the Rays and Orioles played the equivalent of two regulation games on Friday night at Tropicana Field, and Tampa Bay's walk-off win in the 18th inning could send ripples throughout the rest of this weekend's critical four-game series and the entire American League Wild Card race.
The race has been a back-and-forth affair since the beginning of September, as the primary contenders for the last two playoff spots have gained and lost ground in bunches thanks to head-to-head matchups with other Wild Card hopefuls. This weekend represents the Orioles' last direct chance to make up games against one of the teams they're chasing for a spot in the one-game playoff, and with that goal in mind, Friday night's series opener could not have gone worse.
After using 10 pitchers in a 5-4 loss that lasted six hours and 54 minutes, the Orioles are left with no choice but to regroup as best they can for Saturday's matinee in Tampa Bay. The game has become a veritable must-win for Baltimore, now sitting 2 1/2 games behind Cleveland for the second Wild Card spot. The Rays, who hold a half-game lead over the Indians for the top spot, would do well to keep the good vibes from their marathon victory going in order to tighten their grip on a playoff appearance.
After Miguel Gonzalez left the sixth inning of his start last Sunday with a right groin strain, the Orioles thought they would have to skip the right-hander's next turn. But Gonzalez has improved faster than expected over the past week and will take the ball for his scheduled spot in the rotation.
Gonzalez threw a bullpen session on Thursday and worked out again before Friday's game without incident. Showalter cited Gonzalez's 0.92 ERA and 2-0 record in three starts at Tropicana Field as a factor in the decision to go with him over Bud Norris, who had been dealing with inflammation in his right elbow but pitched the final 2 1/3 innings on Friday.
"I'm ready to go when they tell me," Gonzalez said on Friday. "I want to be on the mound anytime I can. That's what we're here for."
Rays starter Alex Cobb came up huge in the series opener of Tampa Bay's critical four-game set with Texas this week, which the teams went on to split. Cobb struck out 10 in eight strong innings to lift the Rays to a back-and-forth 6-2 victory that kicked off the team's current eight-game homestand.
"It was real frustrating at first -- every time they gave me the lead, I was giving it up," Cobb said on Monday. "Then they just broke it open in the fifth inning, and it really allowed me to settle down and not have to nitpick so much. I was able to go at guys with my fastball, try to get them out early in the count and be able to go deeper into the game."
In his second start back from being hit in the head by a line drive, Cobb went six innings in a 7-4 Rays victory against Baltimore on Aug. 20. From that point on, the right-hander has been approaching each start with the intensity that Saturday's matchup surely will demand.
"I feel like I've been pitching my biggest game since I came back," Cobb said. "It's been that type of race since mid-August. Every game has been back and forth, swapping spots in the standings. There's no different outlook. I know how to deal with big games. It's not going to have any different outcome on my performance."
Rays: Jennings stars after being scratched from lineup
Center fielder Desmond Jennings was scratched from the lineup before Friday's game with neck stiffness, and he was replaced in the field by Sam Fuld. Little did Jennings know he would end up playing a full nine innings and score the winning run to cap the longest game in Rays history.
Jennings entered as a pinch-hitter for Jose Molina and singled to lead off the bottom of the ninth inning. He remained in the game at center field and reached base in the 18th with a double down the left-field line before coming around to score on David DeJesus' RBI single.
Jennings had not missed a start because of injury since coming off the disabled list from a fractured left middle finger on Aug. 19.
Orioles: Showalter front-loads lineup
A shakeup of the Baltimore lineup ahead of this weekend's critical series had Manny Machado at the top of the batting order, with everyday cleanup hitter Adam Jones batting second.
"I know our guys are all talking about it," manager Buck Showalter said before Friday's game. "But we've got the same people playing. I'm trying to take advantage of our skills."
Machado and Jones combined to go 3-for-15 on Friday night, while Danny Valencia went 1-for-7 batting cleanup for the first time as an Oriole.
• With his team battling for a chance to make the one-game Wild Card playoff for the second straight year, Showalter discussed his stance on the winner-take-all format.
"Going into it last year, I would have preferred two-out-of-three," Showalter said. "But after we won the first game [5-1 over the Rangers], I was glad it was one."
• The Rays officially recalled right-hander Jake Odorizzi on Friday. Odorizzi spent the majority of the year with Triple-A Durham but has made four Major League starts over the course of the season. He answered the call in extra innings and worked 3 2/3 scoreless frames.
• A Major League-record 21 pitchers were used in Friday night's series opener.
• Left-hander David Price has gone five starts without a victory, his longest winless stretch since the first month of the season. Price, who started Friday's game, has not won since Aug. 24.
Eric Single is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.