Pena's return to Rays a hit right off the bat

Pena's return to Rays a hit right off the bat

Pena's return to Rays a hit right off the bat
ST. PETERSBURG -- Carlos Pena stood on the first-base line at Tropicana Field before Friday's season opener, humbled by a raucous standing ovation welcoming him back to the Rays, whispering under his breath, "Thank you, thank you, thank you."

"I don't ever want a moment like that to go unnoticed by me," Pena said at his locker following Tampa Bay's 7-6 win over the Yankees. "And if I didn't feel that, I wouldn't have a pulse. I truly did feel it. I truly did appreciate it."

He gave the sold-out crowd plenty to appreciate in turn, rocking CC Sabathia for a first-inning grand slam then walking off with a deep fly to left field off the seemingly invincible Mariano Rivera.

And to think, it wouldn't have been possible if not for a "midnight epiphany" by Rays manager Joe Maddon.

Maddon announced his starting lineup Thursday with Pena batting seventh and Elliot Johnson sixth. He changed it before the game and told Pena about 40 minutes prior to the first pitch. In the first inning, it paid off. It worked out again in the ninth inning, too.

Desmond Jennings drew a leadoff walk in the first. Ben Zobrist lined out. Evan Longoria singled to left. Jeff Keppinger's groundout advanced the runners to second and third with two outs. That's when Yankees manager Joe Girardi stepped to the mound to convene with Sabathia.

Pena's career numbers against Sabathia were nothing short of awful, and everyone knew it. Before stepping into the batter's box, Pena was 4-for-35 with two homers off the Yankees lefty ace, and he was 0 for his last 14 with 11 strikeouts. So, Girardi told Sabathia to intentionally walk righty-hitting Sean Rodriguez to bring up Pena.

Girardi admitted that isn't a move he'd often make in the first inning of a scoreless game with his ace on the mound. But the numbers were clearly in Sabathia's favor, and Girardi didn't know at the time how productive his offense would be against Rays pitcher James Shields.

"[Sabathia's] had so much success [against Pena] that it just seemed pretty easy for me to do," Girardi said.

Pena worked a full count, waited for a fastball and got all of it, blasting it an estimated 428 feet into the right-field bleachers for the first grand slam ever hit off Sabathia by a left-handed hitter.

"Joe made the move. It was the right move," Sabathia said. "If I make the pitches, we have nothing to talk about."

"Ninety-four [mph] up in the zone, many will argue, is not a good pitch to hit," Pena added. "That's a tough pitch to get to, but I was able to."

His grand slam -- the eighth of his career and the second in Rays Opening Day history -- gave Tampa Bay a 4-0 lead, but the Yankees quickly regained the advantage. The game sat at 6-5, Yankees, from the fourth until the bottom of the ninth. That's when Pena beat the odds again.

Like many hitters, Pena had struggled against Rivera in his career. He was 0-for-11 with three strikeouts entering the ninth inning. But once again, things lined up for him.

Jennings knocked a leadoff single. Zobrist tripled to right-center, scoring Jennings and tying the game. The Yankees chose to intentionally walk Longoria and Luke Scott to load the bases, then struck out Rodriguez with a five-man infield and two men roaming the outfield.

All Pena needed was a deep fly ball, a sacrifice fly to score Zobrist -- essentially anything but a strikeout or a double-play grounder. In the end, he bashed a high fly ball to the left-field wall, bringing in Zobrist to give the Rays a walk-off victory they celebrated by mobbing Pena near second base.

"He's the best closer ever, in the history of the game, in the world. We all know that," Pena said. "I'm very well aware of the fact that I have not sniffed a ball against him in the past."

That's part of the reason he said the walk-off hit against Rivera was "maybe" his biggest accomplishment Friday, although he acknowledged just how unlikely his grand slam off Sabathia was as well.

"Obviously that's not something that I would have expected," Pena said. "You're always in anticipation of something good to happen. I always show up to the game expecting good things to happen for me and for the team. To be able to come out here and say I'm going to do this, I'm going to hit a home run -- you can never predict such a thing. I always anticipate good things, and it just so happened that today was better than that."

How much better? One of the best days of his career? Absolutely, Pena said.

"This is something I'll never forget," he continued. "This is great. I'm so grateful for a day like today.

"I always said that there's some magic going around in this building. This team is very, very good at summoning the magic. It has to do with the chemistry and everyone pulling for each other in such a way that -- it's this energy that we've got going -- things like this happen. I don't think it's a coincidence."

Adam Berry is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamdberry. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.