Wednesday afternoon, 161 games into the Major League season with only one remaining, I was psyched at the possibility of attending a one-game playoff between the Boston Red Sox and the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field. After all, these kinds of games don’t come around very often. With both Boston and Tampa boasting the same exact record, 90 wins and 71 losses, all each team had to do was win their final game to finish tied for the season and force a playoff. At that point, anything can happen.
Then… anything did happen.
All seemed lost in the Bay area late Wednesday night as the Sox took a 3-2 lead in Baltimore and rain threatened to call the game. Meanwhile, 1000 miles south, the Rays were down by seven to the Yankees, thanks mostly to the hot bat of Mark Teixeira and the cold arm of David Price.
Said playoff game seemed unlikely, as did the Ray’s playoff chances.
Then the unlikeliest of likely happened, until you consider the Red Sox were involved.
While rain continued to fall in Maryland, down seven runs with six outs to go, the Rays scored three quick runs, then another three thanks to a home run by Evan Longoria. The lead was now one.
With a one-run lead entering the ninth inning, the New York Yankees usually call upon the services of Mariano Rivera, yet with the playoffs only days away, Joe Girardi opted to rest the greatest closer in history and hand the ball over to Cory Wade. After all, the Yanks were already in the playoffs. For them, the outcome of this game was relatively meaningless.
Enter pinch-hitter Dan Johnson, batting .119 on the season. Dare I say never in the history of baseball has a .119 hitter ever come up so big. Johnson, a former teammate of Wade’s in minor leagues, took a 2-2 pitch barely over the right field fence. For anyone who ever questioned Joe Maddon’s tactics, let them forever be silenced. Suddenly, the game was tied at seven and anyone tuning in, assuming they were still watching, looked on in disbelief.
Meanwhile, in Baltimore, the rain subsided and the Sox and Orioles continued their ballgame.
As the tenth and eleventh innings came and went in St. Petersburg, Baltimore’s 8, 9 and 1 hitters (what again?!?) took Red Sox reliever, Jonathan Papelbon, and his teammates, potentially out of contention with three consecutive hits, erasing the Sox lead, and their season if only the Rays could come through in the bottom of the 12th.
Evan Longoria hit a line drive home run which eked over the left field fence just as Dan Johnson’s had over the right field fence three innings earlier.
The Red Sox season was over. The Rays received new life… and a playoff berth.
Rays fans were speechless, or at least hoarse from celebration, as their boys in light blue erased a seven run deficit in two innings, against the New York Yankees no less.
Only twenty-four hours before, ESPN aired “Catching Hell,” Alex Gibney’s version of the Steve Bartman story. The documentary spent perhaps a little too much time focusing on Bill Buckner.
Of course, that had nothing to do with it. Just tell that to any Red Sox fan born before 2004.
Actually, Boston’s record collapse started in September when the Red Sox held a once-comfortable, nine-game lead over the Rays only to see it dwindle to nothing in less than a month.
Actually, it started before that, in 1978 when Bucky Dent sunk Boston’s championship hopes in a one-game playoff after they had relinquished a 14-game lead that season.
Actually, it started before that, with Harry Frazee. Boston fans have heard it all before. Let talks of the curse recommence.
So I didn’t get a chance to see that one-game playoff in my own backyard. It would’ve been fun.
What I did get to see was a town, and a team, rejoicing in near miraculous fashion.