Protecting a 3-2 lead, Rafael Soriano started the ninth and quickly retired Ramon Santiago on a flyout to right. Trouble then began for the rock-steady Rays closer.
Austin Jackson hit a ground-rule double to right and Will Rhymes followed with a bloop single to center field that Ben Zobrist fielded quickly and threw home to keep Jackson from scoring the tying run. Johnny Damon then looked at 10 pitches before working a walk to load the bases and bring up Miguel Cabrera.
The AL's second-leading hitter already had hit two doubles to the gap, so the Rays would rather have seen almost any other hitter in baseball than the hot-hitting Tigers slugger.
The count went to 2-2 when Cabrera swung and connected on a chopper to Evan Longoria. The Rays' third baseman never hesitated when making his decision as he whipped a throw to second base rather than going home.
"Obviously before something like that happens, I try to think through the whole situation, and if it's hit, what I'm going to do with the ball," Longoria said. "I was hoping he hit it a little harder so I didn't have to make one of those split-second decisions.
"It was one of those where I probably could have gone home, but I knew Jackson is fast and I didn't want him to beat the throw home and we get no outs. So once I fielded it, I figured I got it in enough time that I could hopefully get the guy at second, and if Miggy wasn't getting down the line, then we could turn it."
Damon resembled a freight train heading into second base, but Reid Brignac hung tough, taking the throw, absorbing the collision and still managing to complete the relay to first.
"I never seen him, but I could feel him, it was one of those things," Brignac said. "I just knew I had to hang in there, and if he took me out -- you know, he took me out, but I knew I just had to hang in there. As soon as I caught it, I just had to get rid of it."
And just like that, the Rays had a jaw-dropping win that felt like one of their hitters had just homered to end the game.
"I'm just glad it worked out the way it did," Longoria said. "That's a fearless play on [Brignac's] part. It's impressive for him to hang in there and be able to throw a strike over to first.
"A lot of guys, when you feel that pressure bearing down on you, [you] have a tendency to maybe try go to quick and either drop the ball or maybe get off the base too quick and you don't get the double play. That's a big play."
Damon complimented the Rays' defense.
"It's amazing what kind of play they did to win the game -- from the beginning, with Longoria to Brignac being able to make the perfect throw after I got him pretty good," said Damon.
While the defense finished off the win, James Shields enabled the late-inning heroics with his pitching. The right-hander never flirted with a no-hitter -- Matt Garza already cashed that chip on Monday night -- and instead he went at the Tigers with blue-collar stuff -- flawed, but effective with a lot of heart.
Shields allowed baserunners in four of the first five innings and somehow managed to work out of trouble. In the fourth, he did so by skipping a pitch past catcher John Jaso then racing to home plate to take a toss from Jaso before tagging out Cabrera trying to score from third base. Other times, Shields used the strikeout to record the final out of the inning, which he did in the second, third and sixth.
"I felt I had pretty good stuff," Shields said. "For the most part, I had pretty good command of my fastball tonight. I think they had about four hard-hit balls tonight. All the rest were kind of choppers and little dumpers, but sometimes when you make a good pitch they hit it."
Meanwhile, the enigmatic Rays offense managed to take a 2-0 lead in the first after Carlos Pena hit his 22nd home run of the season against Tigers ace Justin Verlander. Detroit managed to clip Shields for two in the sixth to tie the game, but the Rays quickly answered in the bottom half of the inning with a two-out rally that saw Matt Joyce double home Carl Crawford.
Shields recorded two outs in the seventh before leaving with a runner aboard. After lefty Randy Choate allowed an opposite-field single to Damon, Cabrera was intentionally walked to load the bases and then right-hander Grant Balfour entered the game and struck out the left-handed-hitting Brennan Boesch on three pitches to end the threat.
"I just wanted velocity right there," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "Boesch, the guy is absolutely mangling left-handed pitching this year and I just wanted to go with something hard and elevated, and Grant did a wonderful job."
Joaquin Benoit took over for the Rays in the eighth and struck out the Tigers in order, paving the way for what proved to be one of the more exciting ninth innings of the season.
"That's what I love about our guys," Maddon said. "That fearless aspect about the way we play."