Five cuts from a wild finish all over the majors, more than any fan could've asked for. And it's not even October yet.
1. What a finish! Cards, Rays clinch playoff spots.
At 9:33 p.m. ET, the rain that was expected to hit Baltimore arrived in the seventh inning with the Red Sox up 3-2 over the Orioles. In St. Petersburg, the Yankees had a shocking 7-0 lead over the Rays despite a pitching staff cobbled together for the day from contest winners and local semi-pro teams. The Red Sox seemed to be nine outs away from saving their season. In Atlanta, the Braves had turned the game over to their fantastic bullpen with a 3-2 lead, and were on their way to a one-game playoff for the wild card with the Cardinals, who were beating up the hapless Astros 7-0 with their ace on the mound.
What happened over the next three hours almost defies description, turning the fates of four teams and creating heroes and goats whose names will be repeated the way prior generations talked about Fred Merkle and Christy Mathewson, about Grover Cleveland and Sam Rice, about Bobby Thomson and Ralph Branca, about Bucky Dent and Doyle Alexander. For three hours, baseball reminded us that no matter what we think we know, we just don't know anything -- and we love the game for it.
2. Longoria, Rays seize the moment.
The Rays, who trailed the Red Sox in the AL wild-card race by as much as nine games in September, and by four games with just 12 to play, are going to the postseason; not to a one-game playoff -- to the tournament, free and clear.
Down 7-0 in the eighth inning, being shut out by a collection of the Yankees' September call-ups and marginal playoff roster arms, the Rays put together the greatest comeback in the short history of their franchise. The Yankees' Boone Logan and Luis Ayala allowed five straight runners to reach to start the inning, and Evan Longoria put a charge into the rally with a two-out, three-run home run that cut the Rays' deficit to 7-6.
Down to their last strike in the ninth against Cory Wade, Dan Johnson -- batting .108 with one home run -- hit a solo blast off the right-field foul screen to tie the game. With the Yankees down to just the call-ups and Scott Proctor (he of the 7.41 ERA), the Rays held on until the 12th, when Longoria yanked a Proctor fastball down the left-field line and just inside the L where the foul pole meets the wall to put the Rays in the postseason for the third time in four years.
Longoria, capping a disappointing season in which he struggled through injuries and batted just .244, almost single-handedly carried his team at the very moment it needed the lift. The Rays, who were so focused on the future that they held back their top prospects and didn't make any deals at the trade deadline, closed the season 35-19 and won their last five games to complete one of the great baseball stories of the 21st century.
3. Red Sox's ouster was microcosm of collapse.
The flip side of a great comeback is a painful ending. For the Red Sox, the 2011 season will be dissected by seamheads for decades to come. A team that was the very best in the game for 18 weeks in the middle of the season started 2-10 and finished 8-21. The last of those 21 losses, a 4-3 defeat at the hands of the Orioles, ended their season. The loss was something of a microcosm of the collapse; the Red Sox squeezed a quality start out of a shaky Jon Lester, who walked four in six innings but allowed just two runs. The Sox led just 3-2 at that point due to a massive failure to convert opportunities, but still had a great chance to lock up the wild card. They led, the Rays were down seven runs. When the tarp hit the field, they were the favorites. By the time it was dry again, the Rays were tied in extra innings and hitting off a horrible pitcher. (The book that will eventually be written can be titled, "The Longest Rain Delay".)
For the game, the Red Sox had 11 hits, six walks and two batters reach on errors ... yet scored just three runs. They were 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position, lost three runners on the bases -- including David Ortiz making a silly try for second base on a single in the left-center gap -- and hit into two double plays. This plagued them in Monday night's loss to the Orioles as well. While the pitching staff will take the lion's share of the blame for the team's collapse, the offense was as much at fault, particularly at the end, as the hurlers.
In the end, the Sox just ran out of arms. Terry Francona went back to the only three relievers he trusted last night. Alfredo Aceves threw a scoreless seventh around two hit batsmen, working his fourth straight day and on the heels of a 36-pitch outing on Tuesday night. Daniel Bard, who threw 28 pitches Sunday and 25 Monday, managed a 1-2-3 eighth despite being hit hard. Jonathan Papelbon, the hero Sunday in New York and Tuesday in Baltimore, just wasn't able to close it out after 57 pitches Sunday and Tuesday nights. Despite getting the swings and misses he wasn't getting Tuesday -- whiffing Adam Jones and Mark Reynolds to start the inning -- Papelbon just couldn't close it out. Chris Davis pulled a first-pitch double down the right-field line. As he did last week in his blown save against the Orioles at Fenway, Papelbon tried to use just his fastball with runners on, and it failed him. Nolan Reimold rocketed a 2-2 pitch into the right-center gap to score pinch-runner Kyle Hudson. With the game tied, Papelbon went back to his breaking stuff, throwing a 1-1 splitter to Robert Andino. It hung, and Andino slapped it into short left field. Carl Crawford dove, couldn't make the play, and by diving cost himself any chance to throw out Reimold at the plate. The inning, and the game, were over.
Not three minutes later, as the Orioles were still celebrating at Camden Yards and word of the Sox's loss was being posted on the scoreboard at Tropicana Field, Longoria hit his rocket down the line. The inning, and the game, were over, but this time, so was the Sox' season.
4. Cards also complete colossal comeback.
The St. Louis Cardinals, buried even deeper than the Rays -- 10½ games behind the Braves on Aug. 24 -- and in worse shape as recently as the weekend, are also into the tournament without a Game 163. Chris Carpenter came to play, staked to a 5-0 lead before he stepped on the mound. That was more than enough, as the veteran right-hander -- whose career was resurrected in St. Louis by Dave Duncan and who was the top starter on the Cardinals' 2006 World Championship team -- struck out 11 in a two-hit shutout that took just 105 pitches.
The Cards, who have won 23 of 32 games, were three games behind the Braves after Friday's games, and a game back Tuesday night after trailing the Astros 5-0 after three innings. They finished the regular season on a 21-1 run over the final 15 frames.
5. Seeds of the Braves' last loss were sown a long time ago
When contrasted to the games played by the Red Sox and Rays, the Braves' loss seems almost plebian. Dan Uggla's two-run homer in the third broke a 1-1 tie and set the Braves, with their ace Tim Hudson on the mound and a fresh and deep bullpen, up for a typical Braves win. It hasn't been a typical Braves month, though, and the fissures that had developed over the course of the season swallowed them whole tonight. In the seventh, with runners on first and third and one out, Hudson induced a double-play ball out of Carlos Ruiz; Jack Wilson booted it, allowing a run to score to cut the Braves' lead to 3-2. Erik O'Flaherty pitched out of the jam, and Jonny Venters threw a scoreless, if dramatic, eighth, setting up the ninth.
For nearly three months this year, from June 11 to Sept. 9, Craig Kimbrel was untouchable. It's not that he didn't blow a save; he didn't allow a run. Fredi Gonzalez's aggressive use of Kimbrel and Jonny Venters seemed to catch up to both pitchers down the stretch. Coming into Wednesday, Kimbrel had been scored upon in three of his last seven outings, with two blown saves and a jump in his walk rate -- albeit in just 6 2/3 innings. Those command problems, perhaps brought on by overuse, were deadly last night. Kimbrel allowed a leadoff single and three walks, blowing the save to a Phillies team that, to its credit, played to the end in a game that meant nothing to it. Five of the eight Phillies' position players went the distance, and the others were removed, at least in part, for tactical reasons. The Phillies, having tied the game in the ninth, then won in in the 13th when Scott Linebrink allowed a walk and two singles to Chase Utley and Hunter Pence. I mention the players to contrast the Phillies' lineup to the 11 pitchers the Yankees used. Admittedly, the Yankees start their postseason a day earlier, but there's certainly a stark difference in who the Braves and the Rays were dealing with in Game 162.
As with the Red Sox, the seeds of the Braves' last loss were sown a long time ago. The Braves scored seven runs in losing their final five games, and in their last game, Fredi Gonzalez's errors in player usage -- benching Jason Heyward, using Martin Prado in the second spot, failing to use a double-switch to get at least a second inning from the highly effective Cristhian Martinez -- all contributed to the loss. Gonzalez struggled all season long to get his best players on the field, while riding the three relievers he trusted into the ground. For the second straight season, the Braves had a championship-caliber pitching staff and an offense not worthy of it. For the second straight season, the Braves had no path to victory when the pitchers let them down.