Biggest baseball stories of 2011
Atlanta's loss coupled with a shutout by St. Louis' Chris Carpenter snared the NL wild card for the eventual champion Cardinals. Over in the AL, the Rays, who trailed the Yankees 7-0 in the eighth inning, tied the game with one dramatic home run (Dan Johnson's two-out laser) in the bottom of the ninth and won it on another (from Evan Longoria) in the 12th. Longoria's home run completed Tampa Bay's epic comeback to win the wild card and came three minutes after the Orioles scored two in the ninth to stun the Red Sox in Baltimore. Boston became the first team to blow a nine-game lead in September, while the Braves blew a 10 1/2 game lead they held on Aug. 25.
Freese could have been the goat for a dropped pop-up early in the game, and the Rangers' Josh Hamilton was very nearly the hero. Hamilton, whose inspirational story in returning to baseball after battling drug addiction has been well chronicled, was hindered by a groin injury that he conceded would have sidelined him during the regular season, yet he hit his first homer of the postseason in the top of the 10th to give the Rangers their second lead -- a lead that was erased when veteran Lance Berkman, down to his last strike, tied the game in the bottom half of the inning.
Across baseball, runs (4.28 per team per game) and homers (0.94) declined for the second straight year -- the lowest for each since 1992 and '93, respectively -- while strikeouts (7.10) were at an all-time high. Among the reasons: pitchers may be better, thanks to more sophisticated medicine and development programs (think Tommy John surgery and pitch counts); hitters seem to be less juiced (fewer gaudy home-run totals); defense is a priority (more batted balls are caught and more defensive minded players -- read: weaker hitters -- are getting regular playing time); and the newest stadiums aren't bandboxes.
Meanwhile, there were never any whispers about the abilities of venerable closer Mariano Rivera, who broke Trevor Hoffman's career saves record and now has 603 to his name following a 44-save, 1.91-ERA season in 2011. It was Rivera's fourth straight year with a sub-2.00 ERA and eighth in the last nine years. With catcher Jorge Posada almost certainly not returning to the Bronx, Jeter and Rivera -- two surefire Hall of Famers -- are left as the last remaining members of the Core Four.