ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — The Tampa Bay Rays wrapped up the second-most successful April in team history with another one-run victory.
Filling in for the injured Evan Longoria, Elliot Johnson twice failed to deliver with men in scoring position before hitting an RBI single in the 12th inning to give the AL East leaders a 3-2, comeback victory over the Seattle Mariners on Monday night.
“I was just trying to hit the ball where someone wasn’t playing one time,” Johnson said following the first walk-off hit of his career. “I was just trying to put a nice easy swing on it, and luckily I didn’t hit it too hard.”
Playing before a crowd of just 9,458 — smallest at Tropicana Field since September 2007 — the Rays twice rallied from one-run deficits before winning it against Brandon League (0-2), who failed to hold a 2-1 lead the Mariners took on Jesus Montero’s homer in the 11th.
J.P. Howell (1-0) pitched one scoreless inning for the win. Ben Zobrist drew a one-out walk in 12th, moved to second on Carlos Pena’s single and scored when Johnson lined a 1-0 pitch that fell in front of Mariners left fielder Chone Figgins.
B.J. Upton’s two-out, broken bat RBI single in the 11th wiped out the short-lived lead the Mariners took on Montero’s homer off Wade Davis, the fourth of five Tampa Bay pitchers.
“I didn’t do what I’m capable of doing, which is getting the ball on the ground,” League said. “I missed with location, especially to Upton.”
The Rays improved to 5-1 in one-run games, the second best record in the majors behind Cleveland’s 6-1.
“We keep battling back,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said after his team won for the eighth time in nine times, taking sole possession of first place in the division. “That’s what I love about these guys.”
Tampa Bay, which has made the playoffs three of the past four seasons, finished April with 15-8 record. They went 17-6 in the opening month of the season in 2010 and have the best April record in the majors over the past three seasons at 47-26.
“It’s a great place to be at the end of April,” Maddon said. “Now we’ve just got to keep pushing forward.”
Miguel Olivo homered off Rays starter Jeremy Hellickson for Seattle’s first run. Mariners starter Felix Hernandez struck out nine and walked four in eight innings while limiting Tampa Bay to Sean Rodriguez’s second-inning RBI single and five hits overall.
Longoria left the game with what the Rays described as left knee soreness after sliding into second base on an attempted steal that end the third inning. The three-time All-Star remained on the ground before climbing to his feet and walking to the dugout without assistance.
Maddon said Longoria will be evaluated on Tuesday. His status is day to day.
Johnson struck out twice with runners in scoring position before coming up again with a chance to put his team ahead in the 10th. Teammates mobbed him in between second and third base after the winning hit.
“It was fun being the guy getting dumped on and almost de-pantsed,” Johnson said of the celebration, “but that’s the way we do it around here.”
The Mariners lost Olivo with a right groin strain in the ninth, when the catcher picked up Upton’s dribbler in front of the plate and threw awkwardly to first base before falling to the ground.
Hellickson, bidding to join James Shields and David Price in matching Tampa Bay’s record for victories in April, scattered six hits over seven innings, walked none and struck out seven. Shields and Price both won four times during the opening month, tying the franchise mark set by Andy Sonnanstine (2008) and Matt Garza (2010).
Olivo hit his third homer of the year to give Seattle a 1-0 lead in the second. The Rays countered with Rodriguez’s RBI single off Hernandez in the bottom half.
The Mariners caught a break in the fifth when Hernandez walked Zobrist and Pena hit a drive to deep center that bounced over the wall for a ground-rule double. Zobrist would have easily scored from first base on the hit, however he was ordered back to third. The score remained 1-all after Johnson, Longoria’s replacement, struck out to end the threat.
Hernandez pitched through another jam after walking Pena and Johnson with one out in the eighth, escaping when he fanned Luke Scott for the third time and got Matt Joyce to ground to second base.
The Mariners threatened in the ninth against Rays closer Fernando Rodney, getting the potential go-ahead run as far as third base with one out on singles by Kyle Seager and Olivo. Tampa Bay wiggled off the hook when Rodney fielded Michael Saunders safety squeeze bunt and threw pinch-runner Munenon Kawasaki out at the plate, then got pinch-hitter John Jaso to line out to center field.
Seattle manager Eric Wedge said the squeeze bunt wasn’t called from the dugout.
“He did it on this own, and he shouldn’t have. I’ve talked to him already. I asked him his reasons for it, and he had good answers, but it’s still not what we wanted to do right there,” Wedge said. “If we’re going to do that right there, it’s going to come from me. Everybody is going to be aware of it, so there’s a level of awareness that allows Kawasaki to get home, quite frankly.”
The crowd was the smallest at Tropicana Field since Sept. 4, 2007, when the Rays drew 9,112 against Baltimore.
NOTES: The Rays signed OF/DH Hideki Matsui to a minor league contract, and the two-time AL All-Star will report to extended spring training in Port Charlotte on Wednesday. Manager Joe Maddon said there is not a definitive plan for when Matsui might be ready to play. … With Rays LF Desmond Jennings not starting because Maddon wanted him to have the day off, Zobrist batted leadoff. Jennings wound up entering the game as a defensive replacement in the 10th. … The Mariners are struggling at the plate with runners in scoring position. They are 0 for their last 25 in those situations, including 0 for 3 on Monday night. … Tampa Bay has a successful April despite not getting any wins from heralded rookie LHP Matt Moore (0-1, 4.68 ERA), who starts the second game of the series on Tuesday. The Mariners will counter with Hector Noesi (1-2, 8.83)
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.