Stairs scored the game-winning run when Toronto second baseman Aaron Hill drew a bases-loaded walk from Tampa Bay reliever Tim Corcoran. When Stairs disappeared into a pile of Blue Jays, he capped off a rally that matched the largest ninth-inning comeback in club history. The only other time Toronto (28-29) overcame a five-run deficit that late was against the Royals on April 27, 2003.
The dramatic finish also overcame an equally unusual outing by Toronto ace Roy Halladay, who allowed eight runs (seven earned) in just 3 1/3 innings. Control issues by Halladay -- he allowed 12 hits and consecutive home runs for the first time in his career in the fourth inning -- put the Jays behind early, 8-1. Erasing that seven-run hole made for the second-largest rally in team history.
"I put us in a big hole and it just shows a lot of heart for guys to come back and do what they did tonight," Halladay said. "It was a great, great comeback for our team and they overcame a lot tonight to get there. I'm happy for them."
"That doesn't happen too often, but we hung around. I don't know how else to describe it," Toronto manager John Gibbons said. "You don't expect that -- that's for sure. We could've folded and shut it down, but we didn't. It didn't start out good. They came out swinging on Doc and they hit him hard."
Toronto slowly chipped away at Tampa Bay's lead, though. In the fourth inning, Jays rookie Adam Lind collected three of his career-high five RBIs with one swing, belting a home run off starter Andy Sonnanstine to highlight a four-run frame. Toronto tacked a sixth run off Sonnanstine in the seventh, which was the pitcher's final inning in his Major League debut for the Rays (24-32)
"You never want to see our guy get hit like that but that's baseball. It happens," Hill said. "We told ourselves in the dugout, I think Stairs was the one who said it, 'Hey, there's a lot of game left. Take it one at-bat at a time and we'll get through this.'"
Hill put the final stages of the rally in motion in the ninth, when Rays manager Joe Maddon turned to reliever Chad Orvella with the Jays behind, 11-6. Toronto's second baseman drew a leadoff walk and then scored when Lind followed with an RBI double. Jays catcher Jason Phillips added another double that plated Lind, cutting Tampa Bay's lead down to three runs.
"You get a leadoff walk and back-to-back doubles and now you've got no outs on the board," Gibbons said. "That's when you start thinking, 'Hey, we've still got three outs to work with and we're starting to put the pressure on them.'"
Feeling that pressure, Maddon called upon reliever Shawn Camp, who didn't fare much better. Camp walked Howie Clark and Toronto put runners on the corners after Alex Rios grounded into a fielder's choice. Three pitches later, Jays center fielder Vernon Wells sent an offering from Camp bouncing into the left-center gap for the third double of the inning, pulling Toronto within one run of tying the game.
As Stairs walked to the plate, the crowd began to roar as Maddon once again turned to his collapsing bullpen. Left-hander Casey Fossum entered the game to face Stairs, and the players sitting on Toronto's bench began to stir with growing anticipation of what was going to happen next.
"I wasn't breathing, I'll tell you that," Lind said. "I was just sitting there, shaking."
Tampa Bay's dugout was experiencing a different kind of feeling.
"We definitely were thinking we could still win," Rays outfielder Carl Crawford said. "But, in the back of your mind, you know you've gone through this for six years, naturally you're going to think about, 'Is this going to happen again?'"
Stairs doubled home Wells to knot the score at 11 and Maddon made yet another change, bringing in Corcoran to intentionally walk Toronto designated hitter Frank Thomas. After a passed ball, Troy Glaus was also issued a free pass, which presented a one-out, bases-loaded opportunity for Hill.
"Your nerves are there a little bit, but that's what you live for," Hill said with a smile. "You've got to just take a deep breath and say, 'This is just like my last at-bat.'"
And it was.
After five pitches, Hill flipped his bat in the air and jogged to first base with a game-winning walk. Stairs headed from third base to the plate, where a different kind of celebration awaited the veteran of 15 seasons.
"Nothing beats coming across home plate and having Vernon throwing punches at you," said Stairs, still smiling.