The two top players on the field went toe-to-toe in the ninth inning before Jose Bautista threw the knockout punch in the 10th.
Tampa Bay Rays third baseman Evan Longoria extended his hitting streak to a career-high 16 games with a one-out double on an 0-2 pitch from Toronto Blue Jays closer Casey Janssen, scoring the tie-breaking run on James Loney's single for a 3-2 lead.
Bautista answered for the Blue Jays in the bottom of the ninth inning with his second solo homer of the game, off closer Fernando Rodney. In the 10th he likewise fell behind 0-2 in the count, and like the fellow three-time all-star, reached over the plate to poke a Kyle Farnsworth offering to the opposite field for the decisive single, the 4-3 victory giving Toronto the rubber match in the three-game series.
Colby Rasmus had started the inning with a top-spin tapper in front of the plate for an infield single and moved to second on a bunt. Pinch hitter Mark DeRosa drew a walk off Cesar Ramos, bringing Farnsworth from the bullpen and Bautista to the plate.
"From being on the opposing side, you know what he's capable of doing, just like Longoria," said Toronto starting pitcher Mark Buehrle, who held Tampa to four hits in seven innings, in a duel with Jeremy Hellickson. "When he comes up to bat you want nobody on base because if you make a mistake, he can make you pay for it."
Bautista reached base in all five plate appearances and drove in the four runs, with four hits. Against Farnsworth, down in the count, he was thinking, "Just put the ball in play. They'd been throwing me in[side] most of the game and I figured since I was successful they would try to get away from that."
The Jays slugger has now reached base in 24 of the last 26 games and moved past Lloyd Moseby for fifth place on the club's all-time list with his 150th and 151st homers, and is 23-for 63 in May with 17 walks.
With the team's first walk-off hit this season – "Couldn't have come at a better time," manager John Gibbons said – the Jays took a series from Tampa Bay for the first time since August of 2010. On the season, the Jays are 2-5-1 in series played at Rogers Centre, and the win pushed Toronto's record in the American League East to 10-18 with the Baltimore Orioles arriving for a four-game series starting Thursday.
"We just need to keep playing baseball," Bautista said. "Play hard, grind out at-bats, have good approaches at plate and eventually we'll be able to win more of those close games."
Trying to ignite the team, Bautista got a mite reckless in the first, tagging up on a fly to Kelly Johnson. Hellickson has allowed first-inning runs in seven of 10 starts, and Anthony Gose had hit his first pitch of the game, coming in on Bautista's single before Edwin Encarnacion lofted the fly to left. Similarly, in New York last Saturday, Bautista was picked off second base to end the inning after Yankees starter David Phelps had walked two hitters and fallen down in the count to Adam Lind, 3-1.
Longoria has become a Gold Glover at third, while Bautista moved from third to right field, where he freezes base runners with one of the most respected arms in baseball.
Longoria had been frustrated the entire game by plate umpire CB Bucknor's strike calls, and he yelled in frustration as Janssen got ahead by two strikes on another disputed call. Janssen tried to get Longoria with a curve but he leaned over the plate to poke it down the right-field line. In seven games against the Blue Jays this season, Longoria has collected 14 hits.
"That's why those guys are the elite players of the game, they [are able] to do those kinds of things," Gibbons said. Signed last winter to a $100-million (U.S.) contract, an "insane number" in his words, Longoria had the third longest active hit streak in the major leagues going into Wednesday night's action, behind former Jays Marco Scutaro (19) and Alex Rios (16). He's reached base in 45 of 46 games, and ranks top 10 in the league in several hitting categories.
Buehrle has pitched effectively in the three games since giving up seven runs in one inning to Tampa Bay on May 6, in a game the Jays came back to win, 8-7. Starting with a called third strike against Longoria in the second, he struck out four batters consecutively and said after that he could count on one hand the number of times that's happened in his career. A four-time Gold Glover, he also made a kick-save play on a Desmond Jennings grounder in the fifth, numbing a couple fingers in the process. He was tempted to throw a warm-up pitch halfway up the backstop afterward to "freak out" the next hitter, but decided against.