Posted by Kevin Durso
The Atlanta Braves were just one of two teams to see a huge wildcard lead vanish on the season's final day. (Courtesy of Yahoo.com)
“Baseball is just a game, as simple as a ball and bat, yet as complex as the American spirit it symbolizes. A sport, a business and sometimes almost even a religion. This is a game for America. Still a game for America, this baseball!”
That great line from Hall of Fame broadcaster Ernie Harwell may just be the place to begin in this captivating novel that was on Sept. 28, 2011.
For many, baseball’s greatest moments have come before our time. For me, born January, 1992, I didn’t see Kirk Gibson’s magical Game 1 World Series walk-off. I didn’t what Vin Scully described as “a million words” in the Red Sox 1986 collapse in the Fall Classic. I didn’t see Reggie Jackson hit three home runs in the deciding Game of the 1977 World Series.
On a more local note, I didn’t see the two great pennant runs of the 80s. I didn’t see Black Friday. I didn’t see the collapse of 1964. But I’m pretty sure I got a taste of all of them last night, starting with a record-setting night in Atlanta, followed by a historic night for baseball.
Four games were on the forefront of the baseball schedule last night. The Phillies and Braves were playing a game that had different meanings. The Phillies were one win away from a franchise record, but that was all the meaning behind Game #162. The Braves were fighting for their playoff lives. The Red Sox were fighting for their playoff lives against the Orioles. The Rays were doing the same against the Yankees. The Cardinals were doing the same against the Astros.
The first three games listed all started at 7 p.m. last night, the Cardinals and Astros kicked off play at 8 p.m. Those first three games to start were the last three games to end. Two of them went extra innings. All three ended with a win in the final inning.
The only one that lacked drama was the Cardinals’ 8-0 massacre of the lowly Astros. The Phillies and Braves played into the night, both knowing their fate. Braves win, and baseball has a one-game playoff. Braves lose, and they end their season. They were two outs away from that one-game playoff. Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel had been the force that drove teams to leave empty-handed in the late innings all season. Venters barely escaped a bases loaded jam in the eighth. Kimbrel couldn’t escape his in the ninth, as the Phillies tied the game on a sac fly. The Braves didn’t have many threats late, but a few close plays said otherwise. Chipper Jones sent one to the warning track in the 10th, barely flagged down by Michael Martinez to end the inning. A weak roller off the bat of Martin Prado in the 12th nearly ended things. The Phillies nabbed a two-out run in the 13th, and held off a Braves’ chance in the bottom of the 13th with a game-ending double play. Braves’ season over, Cardinals coming to a ballpark near you for the NLDS.
In the course of one month, the Braves had an 8 ½ game lead over the Cardinals in the wildcard vanish, and they get to sit on it for the offseason.
In the American League, the same thing was happening to the Boston Red Sox. A nine-game lead in the wildcard had vanished into a tie with the division rival Rays on the season’s final day. For seven innings of both games, everything was going according to plan for the Boston Red Sox. They held a 3-2 lead when rain came to Camden Yards, and the Rays were in a 7-0 hole to the Yankees. The delay lasted an hour, 26 minutes, but that was enough to change the Red Sox season.
The Rays came back on some shaky pitching to score three runs with the bases loaded, one each on a walk, hit batter, and sac fly respectably. Evan Longoria provided the fireworks, belting a three-run shot to make it a one-run game. One inning later, Dan Johnson showed everyone what a little October magic is all about. Johnson entered his ninth-inning at-bat with a .119 batting average. Down to the final strike in their season, Johnson got a hold of a 2-2 fastball, and hooked it just fair, just over the right field fence. Tie game.
Back to Baltimore, where the Red Sox returned from their rain delay with a one-run lead. Their season was one out away from continuing. The Red Sox had also never lost a game they led entering the ninth inning all season. So, in Game #162, a double by Chris Davis, a ground-rule double by Nolan Reimold, and a single by Robert Andino, and by the pictures alone, you’d have swore that Orioles were going to the playoffs. All they did was force the Red Sox to hold their breath. That run crossed the plate at 12:02 a.m. Evan Longoria followed three minutes later with the hit that might as well have gone 500 feet. It barely cleared the short left field wall, 315 feet away, on a line. Tampa Bay went crazy, and the Rays had stunned to win the wildcard, with the heavily-favored Red Sox dealing with a long offseason. Just over five hours after everything started, this greatest night in baseball history, featuring two comebacks in the standings, three late-game wins, and all sorts of goose bump-worthy moments was over.
Baseball has always been the same barring a few minimal changes. One rule change looming was the possibility of moving to a ten-team playoff, bringing two wildcard teams into the Postseason. Based on last night alone, baseball doesn’t need it. Eight teams is enough, and the excitement of the Postseason is just increased by the excitement of the final days of the season. If you weren’t a baseball fan before, last night may have made a believer out of you. If you were a baseball fan already, last night reminded you why we watch this game. In the end, you certainly weren’t worried about the Phillies’ opponent just days from now. You were rooting for the franchise record. You were rooting for the underdog. You were rooting for David to beat Goliath. Unleash all the clichés, because they all fit.
This is why we watch baseball. This is why it is still America’s game. Last night found you rooting for teams you didn’t watch at all this season. Last night had you on the edge of your seat from start to finish. Last night had you remembering what it was like to watch your first game, because you were witnessing something unprecedented in baseball history. Every true baseball fan will never forget this night. It just so happened to be the perfect way to usher in the playoffs.