September 29, 2011
Down nine games in the wild-card standings early in September, down seven runs early in Game 162 — neither deficit mattered to the Tampa Bay Rays.
And no matter how many chances the Boston Red Sox got to prove themselves in a lost September, they were only giving themselves one more chance to blow it.
On the final and most incredible night of the Major League Baseball regular season — maybe in many seasons — the Rays pulled out an 8-7 victory in 12 innings against the New York Yankees at Tropicana Field to gain a spot in the AL playoffs.
Thanks to a winning home run by Evan Longoria(notes) that capped the best game of his career, the Rays will play at the Texas Rangers on Friday night. Detroit plays the Yankees in the other best-of-five ALDS.
Is the fence 3 1/2-feet high in left field? As Longoria said in a postgame interview, that's the only spot in the ballpark where that ball could go out.
Boston, which was picked by most to make the playoffs, and by many to win them, goes home.
Moments before Longoria's heroics, Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon(notes) blew a save against the Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yards in a 4-3 loss that completed one of the biggest collapses ever. Maybe the biggest.
Boston became the first team to miss the postseason after leading by as many as nine games for a playoff spot entering September, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Exhilarating as Tampa Bay's surge has been, the Red Sox just gave it away. Boston went 7-20 in September and couldn't beat the Orioles, a club that finished with 93 losses.
Rays manager Joe Maddon, via his Twitter, gave the O's a standing "O":
Can't express enough gratitude to Buck and the Os for their incredible professionalism. We don't do this without their respect for the game.
The outcome of both games was in doubt, up until the respective final moments, as the Red Sox and Rays faced the possibility of going to the playoffs, being eliminated on the last scheduled day of the regular season, or needing a one-game playoff to determine the last postseason entrant.
Well, they won't need the extra game to sort it out.
The Rays roared back from a 7-0 deficit with six runs in the eighth, but were down to their final strike in the bottom of the ninth when pinch-hitter Dan Johnson(notes) connected for a tying home run. Johnson came in batting .108 with one homer (coming in April) in 90 plate appearances, but Maddon sent him up there anyway.
The moment wasn't unlike a tying home run he hit against the Red Sox at Fenway Park in September 2008 — against Papelbon — to help get the Rays into the playoffs.
Longoria, who hit a three-run homer in the eighth inning to get Tampa Bay within a run, also made the defensive play of the game in the top of the 12th — a diving tag on Greg Golson(notes) at third after the Yankees had put runners at the corners with no outs.
The guy is a ninja out there.
Papelbon, pitching for the third time in four days, almost kept Boston's season alive. His team leading by a run, Papelbon struck out the first two batters of Baltimore's ninth before Chris Davis(notes) hit a double. Nolan Reimold(notes) followed with a ground-rule double to right center, scoring pinch-runner Kyle Hudson(notes) to tie the game. Robert Andino(notes) hit a single to short left that eluded Carl Crawford(notes), and Reimold scored ahead of the throw for the winning run.
So much information to process. But this much is certain: The Red Sox will have a long time to contemplate it all.