If baseball’s postseason is anything like the last night of the regular season, we’re in for one hell of an October.
In case you missed it, and we’re sorry if you did: in the American League, the Boston Red Sox entered Wednesday night tied with the Tampa Bay Rays for the Wild Card lead. Boston had collapsed in September, but still had a chance to make the postseason. Over in the National League, the Atlanta Braves and the St. Louis Cardinals were also tied for the Wild Card lead. A little over a month ago, the Cardinals trailed the Braves by 10.5 games in that race.
If you like sports drama, the night held tons of promise. All four teams were playing games, almost simultaneously. And it exceeded all expectations. To start, the Cardinals made life simple for themselves. They crushed the Houston Astros, 8-0. The Cards then hung around the Houston clubhouse, to see where they’d be flying next. An Atlanta win over Philadelphia would send them home to St. Louis, for a one-game playoff on Thursday, against the Braves. If Philadelphia won, the Cards were headed for Philly to prepare for the Division Series, which starts Saturday.
They had a long wait. Up 3-2 in the bottom of the ninth, the Braves couldn’t hold the lead. A sacrifice fly tied it up at 3-3. The Phillies finally broke through in the 13th, and took a one-run lead into the bottom of the inning. When Atlanta rookie Freddy Freeman grounded into a double-play to end it, the collapse was complete, and Turner Field felt like a morgue. St. Louis was going to the playoffs.
Meanwhile, over in the American League, things got even wilder. Boston was playing in Baltimore. In the seventh inning, with the Red Sox up 3-2, rain forced a delay. The New York Yankees were shutting out Tampa, 7-0. It looked like Boston would sneak into the postseason.
However, Tampa exploded for six runs in the bottom of the 8th inning. And trailing 7-6 in the ninth, with Tampa’s season down to a final strike, pinch hitter Dan Johnson — not exactly a reliable reinforcement, given his .108 aveage – pulled a ball down deep down the right field line, just inside the foul pole, just over the fence. Gone. Tie game, extra innings.
America’s remotes were also working overtime. The Baltimore-Boston game resumed. The Phillies and Braves, and the Rays and Yankees, fought things out in extra innings. Then, within some 20 furious minutes, around midnight, baseball’s best show in years came to an unforgettable close. The Braves lost. Boston entered the bottom of the ninth with a 3-2 lead. When leading after eight innings, Boston was 77-0 this year. Closer Jonathan Paplebon struck out the first two batters. Baltimore’s Chris Davis, however, doubled. Nolan Reimold, down to his last strike, doubled, bringing Davis home. Tie game. The fans in Baltimore, who haven’t had anything to cheer about in years, were screaming as if it was the World Series.
The next batter, Robert Andino, hit a soft line drive to left field. Boston left fielder Carl Crawford, who left the Rays for the Red Sox this off-season — a 7-year, $142 million contract had something to do with that decision — was playing shallow. He came on the ball, and slid: it trickled off his glove. If Crawford had held on, it would have been a nice catch. It wasn’t a routine play. But Crawford still should have caught it. Reimold scored the winning run. Carl Crawford, former franchise player for the Rays, kept Tampa’s postseason chances alive.
Two minutes later, the Rays took full advantage. In the bottom of the 12th, Evan Longoria roped a bullet down the left field line. It barely cleared the top of the fence, but that was it: home run, Tampa wins the Wild Card, Boston goes home. It was another horrible moment in Red Sox history.
But it was a glorious one for baseball.