Sox and Rays Stage Unforgettable Finale

(published September 29, 2011)

Did that really happen?

Did those bizarre, dramatic, outlandish, inexplicable things actually take place?

Truth is stranger than fiction, because fiction has to be believable.  Truth just has to be.

Wednesday was.

On the last day of the baseball season, there were eight games with playoff implications going on simultaneously.

Texas was a game ahead of Detroit for home-field advantage in the first round.  Milwaukee was likewise a game ahead of Arizona.  Detroit and Arizona had the tie-breaker advantage if it came to that.

Their games were just the preliminaries.  So, as it turned out, was the wild-card battle between Atlanta and St. Louis, who entered the night tied.  The Cardinals took care of Houston quickly, while the Braves needed 13 innings to fall to Philadelphia, blowing a ninth-inning lead when rookie closer Craig Kimbrel had a Mark Wohlers moment.

Ignominious as the Braves’ fall may have been – they led St. Louis by seven and a half games with eighteen to play – the world will little note nor long remember it, thanks to the evening’s events in the American League.

The Red Sox and Rays were tied for the wild-card, following a September collapse that was epic even by Boston’s 20th-century standards.  Holding a nine-game lead on September 3, the Sox had gone 7-19 for the month, scoring runs in very occasional clusters, pitching like the 119-loss 2003 Tigers, throwing the ball around the field like Little Leaguers.

On the season’s final night in Baltimore, Boston put the ball in Jon Lester’s hand.  The once-reliable lefty ace had joined the September hit parade, bringing a 5.96 ERA and a 1-3 record into the game.

The Sox scored first, but Lester gave up a two-run homer to J.J. Hardy in the third.  Marco Scutaro evened the game on Alfredo Simon’s balk in the fourth, and Dustin Pedroia gave Boston a 3-2 lead with a home run in the fifth.  Lester was far from dominant, but he was able to induce double-play grounders when he needed them, and he had thrown 93 pitches through six innings with the Sox clinging to that one-run edge.

Meanwhile, under the concrete roof in St. Petersburg, the Yankees were trouncing the Rays, taking a 7-0 lead with the help of a Mark Teixeira grand slam off David Price.  Everything was falling into place for the Red Sox.

Unfortunately, the rain was also falling in Camden Yards, forcing an hour-and-twenty-minute delay in the middle of the seventh.  Lester was done, and Terry Francona turned to his three overworked bullpen stalwarts, all of whom had pitched on Tuesday: Alfredo Aceves, who had gone three-and-two-thirds innings; Daniel Bard and his 11.70 September ERA, who had thrown 25 pitches and raised his September ERA to 11.70; and Jonathan Papelbon, who threw 28 pitches before closing out the win.

While the Sox waited for the rain to stop, the Rays were wreaking havoc with the Yankees’ second-stringers.  Undaunted by a seven-run deficit in the bottom of the eighth, Tampa Bay batted around: single, double, hit batsman, walk, hit batsman, (strikeout), sac fly, home run – it was suddenly a one-run game, and those who hadn’t fled the Trop were on the phone to their friends who had, telling them what they were missing.

If the game had mattered, Mariano Rivera would have come in to pitch the ninth.  Because it didn’t – to the Yankees, that is – Cory Wade did the honors.  Ben Zobrist flied out. Casey Kotchman grounded out.  Dan Johnson pinch-hit for Sam Fuld, and on a 2-2 pitch Johnson turned on a fastball and drove it over the fence in the right-field corner to tie the game.

Wade was done.  Scott Proctor came in – the last available Yankee pitcher.  Time was suddenly on Tampa’s side.

The tarp came off the field in Baltimore.  Aceves and Bard got through their innings unscathed.  The much-maligned Carl Crawford had a chance to be a hero, delivering an insurance run with a double off the wall in the eighth – but Marco Scutaro had to hold up around second to make sure it wasn’t caught, and was thrown out at the plate.

The Rays’ bullpen got to face Ramiro Pena, Greg Golson, Chris Dickerson, Eduardo Nunez, and Brandon Laird.  Scott Proctor had to face a major-league lineup.

In the top of the ninth, Boston put runners on first and third with nobody out, and the middle of the order coming up.  But David Ortiz dribbled a ball that Matt Wieters grabbed and threw to second for a force play; Adrian Gonzalez was intentionally walked; and Ryan Lavarnway hit into a double play to end the threat.

Papelbon took the mound breathing fire.  He blew fastballs past Adam Jones and Mark Reynolds.  Chris Davis doubled to right, but with two out, Papelbon got two strikes on Nolan Reimold before Reimold doubled to center, tying the game.  And on a 1-1 pitch, Robert Andino hit a sinking liner to left.  Crawford tried to make a sliding catch, but the ball went just under his glove, and his throw to the plate was too late.  Baltimore 4, Boston 3.

The game was over, but not the season, not yet.

That took another three minutes.

The scoreboard in St. Pete had just reported the Boston score when Evan Longoria stepped up to the plate.  As if on cue, he lined a 2-2 Proctor pitch down the left-field line, over the 315 sign in the corner.  Extra innings, last game, playoff berth on the line, knowing that Boston had lost – it was the ultimate walk-off homer, and if it doesn’t help the Rays break the apathy of the Tampa Bay market, nothing will.

The Rays had a victory for the ages.

And a new generation of fans in Boston, who came of age with the Pedro and Manny teams, learned how it feels to take a punch in the gut.  And then a hook to the chin.

Welcome to the big leagues, kids.













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