Wednesday, September 28, 2011
This date could go down as the most exciting 'regular season' day in baseball history. In a season when all of the Division races were settled heading into the final week, the last night of the 2011 season saw four teams enter play with a chance to secure a Wild Card Playoff spot. At the very least, win and they would find themselves still alive to play earn their spot in a one game playin game. This is just one FAN of THE GAME's take on what went down.
The St Louis Cardinals, who had battled back from 8 1/2 games back starting the month of September to tie the Atlanta Braves, started things off in Houston facing an Astros' team that had already lost 105 games. A supposedly easy task compared to the Braves facing a Philadelphia Phillies' team boasting the MLB's best record by 4 games entering the day's play. However, as evidenced by the Stros' victory in Game 1 of the series, these ARE professional baseball players, complete with egos and drive to win, and any team can beat any other on a given day.
Regardless, behind a two-hit, complete game shutout by the Cards' Ace, Chris Carpenter, St Louis did their part in an 8-0 victory. The bats were out early as they jumped on Astros' starting pitcher, Brett Myers, scoring five first inning runs. they cruised home from there.
Despite losing the sizable lead in the standings, the Braves looked to stay alive and avoid the series sweep by sending veteran Tim Hudson to the mound. The Phillies countered with journeyman Joe Blanton, and their lineup featured most of the regular starting lineup. Each team tallied a run in the first inning, then, after Blanton ceded the mound to Cole Hamels, Atlanta went on top on the strength of Dan Uggla's two-run homer in the third. The Braves would not score again.
As the game progressed, Philadelphia replaced starters Ryan Howard, Placido Polanco and Carlos Ruiz. The rest of the starters remained in the game for the duration as the Phils played the game out. Philly scrapped out single runs in both the seventh and ninth innings to tie the game and send it to extra frames. The most frustrating of Atlata's bad fortunes had to be rookie sensation Craig Kimbrel's blown save in the ninth. The kid will probably win the NL Rookie of the Year, but just seemed to run out of gas in September, a concern for future seasons.
As pitcher after pitcher took the ball, neither team could push across a run through three extra innings. Finally in the 13th inning, Trade Deadline pickup, Hunter Pence, pushed across the go ahead run on an infield hit. Dan Uggla managed to draw a one-out walk off of David Herndon to give the Braves life, however Freddie Freeman grounded into a game ending double play to extinguish all hope.
St Louis earned the spot and will face the same Phillies in the first round of the NL playoffs. Atlanta had the race seemingly in hand as the final month of the season began, but could not manage to hold on. Perhaps the biggest reason for the fall of Atlanta might be found in the usage of both Jonny Venters and Kimbrel throughout the season. Both young pitchers were amazing at times, but were used often. And both seemed to tire in the most important month.
The American League Wild Card Race was even more WILD, no pun intended. The Boston Red Sox, who began the season in rough fashion, rebounded well and was one of, if not the, best teams in baseball from mid-April through August. They began September with a nine game lead in the Wild Card chase over Tampa Bay.
Although the Sox had already dropped four of six games to the lowly Orioles in the past ten days, they seemed to have nearly as easy a task facing them as their St Louis counterparts. The Os had lost 93 games coming into last night and were sending Alfredo Simon, 15 previous starts and a 4-9 record, out to face a potent lineup. Boston countered with 15-game winner Jon Lester. It sounded like a perfect recipe for victory.
On the other hand, the Rays were facing rookie pitcher Dellin Betances, making his first ever Major League start. Former sensation David Price, who struggled to a 12-13 record, went to the hill for Tampa. To his credit, Betances tossed two scoreless innings before the New Yorkers began to send a bevy of hurlers into the game, both known and unknown entities. Price, on the other hand, gave up five runs in the first two innings, including a Grand Slam to slugger Mark Teixeira, leading the fans to lose hope. Tropicana Park began to slowly empty after Teixeira blasted his second home run of the game, and 39th of the season, to make the score 6-0.
Meanwhile, Boston built a 3-2 lead though five innings on the back of Dustin Pedroia who drove in the first Sox run in the third and followed that up with a solo homer in the fifth inning. That score remained into the seventh inning when a deluge opened up over Camden Yard. That rain turned out to be an apt statement on the fortunes of the Red Sox' season as the night wore on.
Back in Tampa, the lead had grown to seven runs when Andruw Jones smashed a solo shot off of Juan Cruz in the fifth inning.
Stadiums in both cities empited, leaving each with a remaining majority rooting for the visiting teams. And then the world turned into the craziest baseball melodrama ever written. While the Red sox watched on the clubhouse television, the Rays mounted an eighth inning comeback. It started innocently enough with a Johnny Damon single. Ironically, Damon had won World Series Championship rings with BOTH the Red Sox and Yankees. Ben Zobrist followed with a double, Casey Kotchman was hit by a pitch and the bases were loaded. Nothing really to worry about in New England, the score was still 7-0. But Sam Fuld drew a walk and Sean Rodriguez became the second batter of the inning to be hit by a pitch and the Rays had score twice. After Desmond Jennings struck out, BJ Upton hit a sacrifice fly to cut the score to 7-3, but Tampa was now down to their last out of the inning. And the man strolling to the plate was the one man Boston dreaded to see in this situation, Evan Longoria. First pitch swinging, Longo blasted a three-run shot into the seats and the lead was down to a single run. After sitting the Yankees down in order in the top of the ninth, The Rays had one final chance to extend their season. Zobrist flew out and Kotchman grounded weakly to third, setting the stage for Manager Joe Maddon to turn to Dan Johnson. WHAT? The same Dan Johnson who had started the season with the big club, only to be demoted to the minors for the majority of the season? The same Dan Johnson who was sporting a batting average of .108? The same. And in the fashion of perhaps the silliest premise a screenwriter could come up with, Johnson hit a two out, two strike pitch down the right field line, just barely clearing the wall and tying the game. Believe it.
In Baltimore, the rain ended and the Red Sox players slowly filed back onto the field. Their attitudes belied the fact that they still had the opportunity to win their game, a game in which they still held a one run lead. Back and forth from Baltimore, MD to Tampa, FL television viewers could flip, only to see no one cross the plate in either game. Defense dominated as threat after threat was extinguished, including Boston's Marco Scutero being thrown out at the plate. The Rays battled into extra innings as the Sox faced the bottom of the ninth.
And who should take the mound for the Beantowners? One Jonathon Papelbon. Papelbon, one of the games' most respected and feared closers, had the chance to secure Boston's victory. And he looked on fire striking out the first two Orioles to come to the plate. That was when the world began to change, yet again. Chris Davis was first pitch swinging and doubled into the right field corner . Nolan Reimold battled Papelbon to a two ball, two strike count and then blasted a ground rule double tying the game.
Two things then happened at once. In Tampa, BJ Upton was stirking out to lead off the bottom of the 13th inning just as light hitting Robert Andino was finishing off the Sox disgrace by hittting a catchable liner into left field. Ironically, Boston's left field was being manned by former Rays' Superstar, Carl Crawford. Crawford did not make the catch. The game was over .... save blown and game lost by Boston's most reliable asset, Jonathon Papelbon. But their was still a faint heartbeat detectable on the Sox chances.
The climax of the evening and the moment of the season followed a mere three minutes later. Evan Longoria, he of the three run game changing home run in the eighth inning, worked a two-two count, fouled off a pitch and then proceeded to hit what is probably the shortest, and yet most important, home run in the franchise's history. A walk off home run in the bottom of the 13th inning on the final day of the season to clinch a post season berth! Amazing night, amazing end!
There will plenty of angst driven accusations made about how the Yankees pulled starting players and did not send their ace reliever, all-time saves leader Mariano Rivera, into the game to close Tampa out. And I could respond, in a purely unbiased way, that the Yankees EARNED the right to rest any and all of the players that chose to by winning the division and clinching early. I could respond that all of the players on the field for all of the teams on this are professionals, and as such, competitive baseball players. I could respond that during the course of a 162 game season, the Red Sox managed to swoon in late June, losing four of six games to the lowly Padres and Pirates, "end of discussion".
But the real reason that the Tampa Bay Rays are playing in the post season and the Boston Red Sox are making vacation lies in two simple facts. During the month of September, the Red Sox lost five games to the Baltimore Orioles, a team which ended the season with 93 losses. And finally, head to head, Tampa Bay beat Boston four our five games in Fenway Park. Win any one of those games, and things are different. Boston has only place to look if they wish to assign blame .... the mirror.
Epilogue: The title of this day's blog is 'MLB Finale: Will Playoffs be Anti-Climatic?' I felt that I needed this entire diatribe on the events of last evening, and some observations concerning the collapses of September to get to this point. There is, in fact, a possibility that certain teams get hot and each playoff series turns into a blowout. There could be absolutely no drama what so ever as we crown a champion to this 2011 season. I, for one, will be praying that Wednesday, September 28, 2011 is merely a prelude to a fantastic post season! But I still must finish it all like this ......
WHAT CAN YOU DO FOR AN ENCORE?!?!?!