OK. A lot of folks aren’t baseball fans, or even sports fans. But you do appreciate that many of your fellow citizenry are. And whether the home team or the favorite team wins or lose means a lot.
Now baseball, with a pedigree going back to the 19th century, has plenty of history and plenty of fans. In the sports context there have been plenty of dramas, heroic wins, unbelievable losses, awesome stretch drives and devastating collapses.
Last night featured just about everything. I’ll focus on the American League as I know it better.
Without going into a lot of details, Boston and New York are traditional powerful clubs with payrolls that dwarf most of their competitors and an impressive run of playoff appearances. Despite missing the playoffs in 2010, Boston looked to be the team to beat in 2011. They had a good team last year and augmented that by acquiring one of the league’s best players in Carl Crawford and one of baseball’s best hitters in Adrian Gonzalez.
After a poor start in April, they started winning games in bunches from May through July. August was pretty good too. They were back and forth with New York for the league lead. September was a disaster. A good team wins around 6 of every ten games and an average team 5. A bad team wins 4 and in September, Boston was winning only 3. Still, they had enough of a cushion that they remained good bets to qualify for the playoffs.
By the last game of the season, they had fallen into a tie with Tampa Bay for the final playoff position. Tampa was playing the powerful New York Yankees who were already guaranteed a spot in the playoffs. Boston was playing the last place Baltimore Orioles who had never won against Boston’s starting pitcher – John Lester.
For most of the evening, things went Boston’s way. They had a 3-2 lead over Baltimore going into the seventh inning. Then it began to rain and the game was delayed.
Meanwhile, New York had an imposing 7-0 lead over Tampa. During Boston’s rain delay, Tampa scored an unlikely 6 runs in the eighth inning. New York’s lead was now 7-6. It went into the ninth and final inning just as the Boston-Baltimore game was getting ready to resume. If both New York and Boston held their leads, both teams would advance to the playoffs. If New York lost to Tampa Bay, or Boston were to lose to Baltimore, then Boston and Tampa would have to play one more game on Thursday with the winner advancing. But around 11:00 Wednesday evening it looked like both Boston and New York would win.
That is not what happened. First, with two outs in the ninth inning, and only a single out remaining, Tampa made the curious choice of bringing in Dan Johnson to hit. While years ago Johnson had shown a modest bit of power, in 2011 he had been probably the worst hitter in all of baseball. He couldn’t even hold a steady job. But, with a Hollywoodish twist, with two strikes on him, and Tampa only a single pitch from almost certain elimination, Johnson hit a home run, only his second of the year (his previous one was in April). That tied the game and meant that the Yankees and Tampa would have to play extra innings until one of the teams broke the tie.
Meanwhile, in Baltimore the game resumed. By the ninth inning, Boston held to their 3-2 lead. It looked like they might increase it in their half on the ninth when they had runners on first and third but it was not to be. So in the bottom of the ninth, Boston brought in their closer, Jonathan Papelbon, to pitch to Baltimore. It looked like it would be over quickly. Papelbon induced two quick outs, both strikeouts. One more and Boston would win the game and be guaranteed the one game playoff against Tampa, if not an outright advancement into the playoffs should New York win.
Over in Tampa Bay, the game had proceeded into three extra innings. It was now in the 12th.
A speed bump in Baltimore. Chris Davis of Baltimore doubled. The next batter, Nolan Reimold, had two strikes on him. Just one more and Boston would win. But no. He doubled to tie the game. And the next batter singled to drive in Reimold and win the game for Baltimore.
THREE MINUTES later, Evan Longoria hit his second homerun of the game to win the game for Tampa.
So around 11:00 it looked like Boston would qualify for the playoffs. By midnight it was 50-50 whether they would qualify or have to play a one game playoff with Tampa. A few minutes later Boston was out and Tampa Bay was in.
Keep in mind that not only did Boston lose after being within ONE pitch from victory; they had one of the all-time worst Septembers for any probable playoff qualifiers. And Tampa Bay was also just a single pitch from elimination. Yet at the crucial time they got a homerun from a guy who hadn’t hit one in more than five months.
I mentioned that I’d focus on the American League. In the National League, Atlanta, who had a comfortable lead for the playoffs until recently, lost their chance in extra innings. Like Boston, they too blew a lead in the ninth inning. And like Boston, they too had a lead of around nine games in early September.
For baseball fans, this is truly a historic evening. A movie written with this scenario and this timing wouldn’t be believed.