Around 9:30 pm Wednesday night, things were looking rosy for the Boston Red Sox. The memories of a horrific last month were on the verge of being washed away. Pessimism in Red Sox Nation had turned to cautious optimism.
With the exception of a two-run home run to J.J. Hardy in the third inning, Jon Lester was pitching like the ace he was expected to be. Certainly, it was the best he’s pitched in over a month.
A quick look at the scoreboard at Camden Yards had to have put a smile on the Red Sox players’ faces. Tampa Bay was down to the New York Yankees, 7-0. Tampa had fought valiantly all month long. They had come back from nine games behind Boston on September 1. Heck, on September 23, the Rays were 2.5 games behind the Red Sox with only six games remaining for Boston. But, alas, it was beginning to look like the comeback was going to come one game short.
The Red Sox had a 3-2 lead. Lester had made it through six innings, a rare accomplishment for a Boston starting pitcher in September. It was set up perfectly. Alfredo Aceves had been one of the few consistent bright spots for the team all year and it was set up for him to come in the 7th inning.
Daniel Bard, who was virtually unhittable for five months of the season, was poised to come in for the 8th inning. From May 27 through July 31, Bard hadn’t given up an earned run, spanning 25 games and 26 1/3 innings. Remember that? September wasn’t so good for Bard, but maybe he could rediscover his mechanics for one night.
Then it would be time for Jonathan Papelbon to stamp Boston’s ticket to the playoffs. Prior to September 20, Papelbon had blown only one save all season. Perfect, right?
THEN CAME THE RAIN
At 9:33, the tarp came out. The Red Sox headed to the clubhouse. Prescient Red Sox fans were clamoring for the heavy rain to continue and for the powers-at-be to call the game.
You would think the Red Sox players huddled around a television in the clubhouse and tuned in to watch the Yankees certainly finish off Tampa. You know Theo Epstein was watching. Certainly there had to be a lot of jocularity going on. The Rays were down 7-0 in the 8th inning. The Red Sox would just need to take care of their business once the rain stopped and they’d be catching a flight for Texas or Detroit to play in the playoffs. There was still a chance to salvage the season.
As those scenarios danced through everyone’s minds, inexplicably, the Rays mounted an incredible comeback. They scored six runs in the 8th inning, capped off by a three-run home run by Evan Longoria. The Yankees lead was down to 7-6 heading to the ninth. Yankees manager Joe Girardi had stated before the game that he was not going to use any of his regular pitchers in this game, including future Hall-of-Famer, Mariano Rivera. Girardi had earned the right to make that decision. He owed nothing to the Red Sox.
The Yankees went down 1-2-3 in the top half of the ninth inning, then it was time for the Rays’ final “hoorah,” with all due respect to Jonathan Papelbon. The first two batters went down harmlessly enough. Manager Joe Maddon, who should be the unanimous choice for Manager of the Year, decided to pinch hit Dan Johnson for Sam Fuld. Fuld had been a great story helping the Rays rebound from an 0-6 start (sound familiar?) in April, but had come back down to earth.
Dan Johnson came into the game hitting a mere .108. His last hit at the major league level came on April 27. Down to his last strike, Johnson lined a shot to right field which cleared the wall for one of the most improbable clutch home runs ever. The game was becoming a microcosm of the whole season– the Rays had unimaginably overcome a seemingly insurmountable late lead.
Suddenly, the anxiety of Red Sox fans rose exponentially. A few moments earlier, prior to the rain delay, the Red Sox were having visions of making the playoffs without even having to play a play-in game against the Rays on Thursday. Now, there was a distinct possibility, if they slipped up, their season could be over in a few hours. The realization that this could be Terry Francona’s last game ever managing the Red Sox became fathomable.
Both games, like two crews rowing to the finishing line, trudged forward, matching each other stroke for stroke. The Red Sox headed to the 9th inning. Aceves and Bard did their jobs. It was now up to Papelbon. He struck out the first two batters, Adam Jones and Mark Reynolds, easily. Papelbon was cruising. Strike out-prone Chris Davis then lined a double down the right field line. The no.9 hitter, Nolan Reimold, came up and looked overmatched on two Papelbon fastballs—both swing and misses. Down to his last strike, Reimold squared up a fastball and lined it to right center field. A collective gasp could have been heard as it became apparent that Ellsbury wouldn’t catch up to it. Ground rule double and the game was all tied up.
Enter Robert Andino. Andino (5 HR, 36 RBI, .263 avg.) had a number of huge hits against the Red Sox all month, and Wednesday night would be no different. He hit a sinking liner to left field, not far from where Carl Crawford was positioned. It would have required a sliding catch, but it looked fairly standard for a major league outfielder, especially one signed to a $142 million contract in the offseason. Alas, Crawford couldn’t come up with it and the game was over. Ten of Andino’s 36 RBI on the season came against the Red Sox.
Red Sox fans en masse quickly overcame their shock and desperately flipped to the Rays’ game. Red Sox fans could have been forgiven if they had forgotten that Scott Proctor was still in the major leagues. Well, he is, and he was pitching for the Yankees—entering his third inning of work. Yikes! B.J. Upton struck out to lead off the 12th, and up stepped Evan Longoria. Longoria lined a shot down the left field line, barely over the wall, just to the right of the foul pole. In a matter of seconds, the Red Sox season was over.
It was Longoria’s second clutch home run of the night. It should have come as little surprise as Longoria had been clutch for two months now. For a team ranked 25th in team average (.244) in the majors, he hit 17 HRs and drove in 46 RBI in August and September. That is the true definition of Most Valuable Player. Where would the Rays have been without Longoria the last two months?
To cap off one of the craziest nights in major league baseball history, the Red Sox bailed out the Atlanta Braves. The Braves lost to the Phillies in 13 innings, thanks in part to their superb rookie closer Craig Kimbrel blowing a save in the 9th inning. Combined with the St. Louis Cardinals 8-0 victory over the Houston Astros, and the Braves tied for the biggest September collapse ever—blowing an 8.5 game lead on September 1. The Red Sox trumped them by a half game a little while later.
So let the “Blame Game” begin and let the excuses fly. The fact is that the $42 million-payroll Tampa Bay Rays showed a ton more heart than the $163 million-payroll Red Sox. A ton. They just refused to believe they were out of the race until they were officially eliminiated.
This past month, the Red Sox starting pitchers couldn’t get past four innings. Their outfielders couldn’t catch fly balls. Their MVP-caliber center fielder couldn’t make a great catch when it mattered. Baserunners were either getting picked off or being thrown out trying to foolishly get an extra base. Ordinarily reliable relievers turned to mush during the heat of a playoff push. The manager was juggling his lineup as late as the final week of the season—batting Jed Lowrie cleanup , experimenting with Carl Crawford back in the no. 2 spot, moving Adrian Gonzalez down to fifth, putting a rookie catcher batting fifth in the final game (resulting in Gonzalez being intentionally walked three times, and Ryan Lavarnway, the aforementioned rookie, stranding nine runners on base), and pencilling in a .387 hitter (Marco Scutaro) in September in the ninth spot.
This past week the Rays turned triple plays, hit pinch-hit game tying home runs when they were down to their last strike, stole bases, made great diving catches, and, most importantly, they never gave up. They didn’t give up when they were eleven games behind the Red Sox on August 9. They didn’t give up when they were down nine games on September 1. They didn’t give up when they were down two-and-a-half games on September 23. And they didn’t give up when they were down 7-0 in the 8th inning of the final game of the season.