For anyone that knows me or follows this blog with any kind of regularity, it should be more than obvious that baseball is my favorite sport. With the countless number of hours I’ve spent playing and watching baseball I figured I had seen all there is to possibly see. Last night, I was proven wrong as the Red Sox and Rays showed us all why sports are better than any reality tv show or scripted drama you could come up with. You couldn’t have written a better ending to the 2011 regular season then what they penned last night.
All the Red Sox needed to do was win in order to ensure at least a one game playoff this afternoon. The same went for Tampa; win and you’re guaranteed a tomorrow. The most likely scenario to play out appeared to be a one game playoff. The Red Sox were playing the Baltimore Orioles, cellar dwellers in the AL East and one of the worst teams in baseball. The Rays were playing the Yankees, who had sealed their playoff fate weeks ago and were playing scrubs and setting up their rotation. How could both teams not win and force game 163?
The answer to that question is simple… because the Yankees were involved.
You see, the Red Sox needed help from their arch nemesis. This wasn’t a win and you’re in type of deal. This was a win and hope the Yankees can do you a solid and beat the pesky Rays. The thought of rooting for the Yankees made Red Sox fans sick, but desperate times call for desperate measure… or so I’m told.
The the better part of the night, the Red Sox got that help. Despite the fact the Yankees had solidified their place in the postseason a week or so earlier with absolutely nothing to play for, Joe Girardi still fielded what could be considered his “A” lineup. It showed early on as the Yankees jumped all over Tampa ace, David Price, to take a 7-0 lead through 5 innings of play.
Meanwhile, the Red Sox were taking care of their own business for the first time in more than a month. After falling behind early, the Sox managed to battle back and take a lead over the Orioles. Couple that with the events transpiring in Tampa and Red Sox Nation was feeling good. The month-long stooper appeared to be lifting. The weeks of crappy baseball they had witnessed would all become a distant memory in a matter of an hour or so.
That’s when things went terribly wrong.
Almost as if he could sense the jubilation in Boston, Yankees manager Joe Girardi began pulling his star players out of te game left and right. The lineup of all-stars and 10 figure salary players who started the game were replaced by triple A projects called up when rosters expanded. Girardi also started running through pitchers like they were going out of style. For the game he sent 11 pitchers out onto the mound with only Scott Proctor throwing more than two innings. The reason? Proctor was the last pitcher available for the Yankees.
That was when the flood gates opened… literally. The Red Sox were forced to sit in the clubhouse and wait while Mother Nature rained down. Left with nothing but their thoughts for an hour and 20 some minutes, they tightened up. It also didn’t help that as they made their way back onto the field, the Rays were clawing their way back into the wild card race, simultaneously tightening the sphincters of every Boston player and fan.
What looked like a blowout in Tampa quickly became anything but that. In the eighth inning, the Rays would begin mounting a comeback we will be talking about for years to come. A seven run Yankee lead became 6, 6 became 5, 5 became 4. Then with one swing of the bat, Evan Longoria pulled the Rays to within 1. All the while, the Red Sox were grinding it out in Baltimore, looking not to beat the Orioles, but the merely survive the Orioles. Inning after inning passed on the scoreboard and with it the closer the Red Sox came to avoiding one of the greatest collapses in baseball history. If only the Yankees could hold on for three more outs.
Up by one in the bottom of the ninth, Joe Girardi went to his bullpen. Only it wasn’t the familiar sight we have come to expect over the years. Instead of Mariano Rivera, out trotted Cory Wade to close out the Rays. If pulling his starters was an eff you to Boston, then Girardi putting Wade into the game was the accompanying middle finger.
Then on a 2-2 pitch, Dan Johnson, owner of a .108 batting average, hit the game tying home run over the wall in right. It was Johnson’s first home run since April and quite possibly the greatest “call it a hunch” moves in the history of baseball by Joe Madden. His “Holy $hit!” reaction caught on camera was priceless. As the 6 changed to a seven on the scoreboard in Baltimore you can only imagine the thoughts racing through the heads of the Red Sox. If I’m a betting man, it was probably something along the lines of, “You have to be $hitting me…”
As Tampa and New York headed to extra innings, the Red Sox clung to their one run lead, all the while staring at the scoreboard and hoping the Yankees could come through. Little did they know there was no chance of this happening. With a lineup of triple A prospects and one pitcher left, there was no way the Yankees had the fire power to take back the lead. The Yankees would squander rally after rally while the Rays simply bided their time, almost as if they were intentionally allowing the scene to build.
Meanwhile, the Atlanta Braves completed their epic collapse, falling to the Phillies by a score of 4-3. Thanks to the Cardinals drubbing of the Astros, the Braves were now on the outside looking in at the playoffs, a fate the Red Sox were hoping to avoid themselves.
Back in Baltimore, the Red Sox had survived an hour and twenty-minute rain delay, numerous base running blunders, and several Oriole scoring threats to make it to the ninth inning with a lead. With Jonathan Papelbon headed to the mound, one couldn’t help but think we were headed to game 163. Afterall, these are the moments Papelbon has lived for.
Double… No big deal.
Double… Tie game and mass panic ensues.
Papelbon had officially blown the save, more than likely a result of his overuse in the days leading to last night’s game. The extreme number of pitches he had thrown in the past few days to get the Red Sox to this point had left him a one pitch pitcher. Without a working breaking ball, Papelbon was forced to rely on his fastball. This is something Terry Francona should have been aware of before the game had even started and only further adds fuel to the fire for his head in Boston.
Of course, we all know how the game ended. Robert Andino followed up the back to back doubles with a sinking liner to left field that Carl Crawford was unable to catch. The winning run would race around third and score. The Baltimore Orioles celebrated and dog piled as if they had just won the World Series; the Red Sox walked off the field with their heads hanging, almost as if they knew what was about to happen next.
As the scoreboard in Tampa changed from 3-2 to 3-3 and then minutes later from 3-3 to a 4-3 final, the crowd erupted. The Orioles had done their job, guaranteeing the worst that could happen was a date with the Red Sox in a winner take all game 163 for the AL Wild Card. As the Red Sox made their way to their clubhouse in Baltimore, and to the televisions to learn their fate, Evan Longoria would deliver the final blow, the ultimate of all nut shots.
Three minutes after throwing away the lead in Baltimore, Evan Longoria sent a screaming liner over the left field wall in Tampa. Game. Set. Match. As Longoria rounded the bases and made his way to the mob of teammates awaiting him at home plate, the Red Sox were left to wonder what had happened. Longoria touched home plate and it was official. The Rays were headed to the post season and the Red Sox were headed home.
So what went wrong for the Red Sox? It’s a question the people of Boston and within the organization will debate for the next five to six months. They’ll analyze, make changes, and reload just like they always do, but what happened over the past 30 days defies all logic and reason. We just saw something unlike anything we have ever seen before.
Sometimes baseball is funny like that. Sometimes baseball doesn’t offer a simple explanation for what happened. Perfect storms like this just seem to happen from time to time. Perhaps the baseball gods had simply grown tired of Red Sox Nation and their free spending ways. Maybe they felt as if the Red Sox needed to be brought back down to earth, back to their pre-2004 roots. Afterall, what better way to appreciate success than by experiencing complete and utter failure.
Red Sox fans see the events that played out as the worst case scenario, and that’s true to an extent. What just happened to them in September was pretty bad. But maybe it’s not, maybe this is catalyst for change and a move into a better direction. Whatever it is I know one thing is for certain…
The rest of America, myself included, is enjoying the hell out of this. To quote the Yankee Loving Fiancée this morning, “We screwed them again!”
Well played, Yankees… Well played.