SEATTLE -- Fans shuffled out of Safeco Field on Friday, some with two outs in the bottom of the 11th inning, some earlier than that as it looked like Tampa Bay shortstop Jason Bartlett's 11th-inning homer was going to prove the difference in a nearly four-hour battle between the Mariners and Rays. And who could blame them, really, with two strikes on Ryan Langerhans, the .231-hitting lefty with one home run this season, batting against J.P. Howell, one of the toughest lefty relievers in the game? A crack of the bat made everyone wish they'd stayed.
Langerhans went down and got a breaking ball, golfed it over the right-field fence and sent what remained of the announced crowd of 44,378 into a frenzy, capping one of the wildest games at Safeco this season with his first career walk-off homer in a 7-6 Seattle win. "It was funny," Langerhans said. "I was trying to do it in the ninth and struck out, and then right there, I was just trying to get a base hit and keep the game alive and lucked out and hit one out." It felt almost fitting that the Mariners would end the game in the most unlikely of ways, given the fact that their ace, Felix Hernandez, was off his game from the beginning of this one and that they had already clawed back from a sizable hole earlier in the game. This one seemed fated to go the Rays' way for a most of the night, though. Russell Branyan had given the Mariners a 1-0 lead in the first with a high-arcing homer to dead center field, but Tampa Bay scored three times -- benefiting from an error, two passed balls and three walks -- in the second inning to take the lead. Pat Burrell added a homer in the fifth and an RBI groundout in the seventh to give the Rays a 5-1 lead. Hernandez struggled, and the sloppy defense didn't help. He went six-plus innings but struggled with his command, walking six batters and allowing five hits in an uncharacteristically shaky outing. And Rays starter Jeff Niemann proved nearly unhittable following Branyan's blast, allowing just one hit and retiring 17 of 19 afterward -- until one of the most clutch players in franchise history turned things around. Ken Griffey Jr., on the same night the first 20,000 fans through the gate received a Bobblehead doll in his likeness, belted a ball into the right-field seats to lead off the seventh inning. But it would have been nothing more than a bright spot on an otherwise dismal loss had it not been for the onslaught that followed. Adrian Beltre singled immediately after. Franklin Gutierrez struck out, then Jack Wilson sent Beltre to third with a bloop single to right and Rob Johnson scored Beltre with a single into the hole at second. Mike Sweeney, pinch-hitting for Michael Saunders, was hit by a pitch -- with Langerhans entering as a pinch-runner -- then Ichiro Suzuki gutted one up the middle, tying the game at 5. "We're normally able to put that away," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "The bullpen has been really locked down for a while. But to give up a four-run lead in the seventh is not good." Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu called it, bluntly but aptly, a battle. "When you start chipping away," Wakamatsu said, "you start to get a belief system you can come back in this ballgame." Belief system or not, almost no one could believe how this one ended -- especially after Bartlett's homer to left field in the top of the 11th that gave the Rays a 6-5 lead. But it wouldn't have happened had Gutierrez, who struck out in his previous four at-bats, not walked to lead off the 11th to put things in motion. He worked the count full, then took a fairly close pitch for ball four to get on base. "Guti had a tough day, but he had one of the best at-bats of the game, getting that walk to start us off," said Wilson, who played in his first home game since coming to Seattle in a July 29 trade. "Without that, we wouldn't be having a happy interview." Wilson moved Gutierrez over with a sacrifice bunt, and Johnson flied out to center field. Then Langerhans did what nobody thought he would -- himself included -- to apply a firm imprint of this night on the memories of anyone who watched it happen. "Once I got to two strikes, I was just trying to look to battle and get Guti in from second," Langerhans said. "I was just trying to tie the game up and keep us going, and just was able to stay on that breaking ball and hit it out." Upon arriving at home plate, Langerhans was greeted with the obligatory, playful beating from his teammates, having just moved the Mariners within 5 1/2 games of the Red Sox in the Wild Card race. It had to feel pretty good. "I've gotten to be the one slapping quite a few times," Langerhans said. "But I've never gotten to be the one getting slapped."
Christian Caple is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.