One Wednesday in Baseball History

23:44 Sun 02 Oct 2011
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Crazy things happen in sports. What happened in baseball last Wednesday was a big bag of the insane, the dramatic, and the historic, strongly spiced with the unprecedented.

At the end of the baseball regular season, eight teams (of 32) qualify for the playoffs. The regular season is 162 games long, and usually those eight teams separate themselves from the rest quite a while before it’s over.

But not always. Sometimes every game matters for a team. Last Wednesday, four teams entered the final night of play facing critical games, and for two of those teams not only a playoff spot but the avoidance of an ignominious record was at stake.

It’s been described as the best night in regular season baseball history.

Major League Baseball is divided into two leagues, the AL and the NL, each of which has three divisions, the West, Central, and East. The team with the best record in each division is that division’s champion and goes to the playoffs, leaving two spots remaining; they go to the team with the best record in each league that did not win its division. Those two spots are called the wild cards.

This year, the division titles were wrapped up early, and it looked as if the wild cards would be also. In the National League, the Atlanta Braves had an 8.5-game lead over their nearest rivals in early September; in the American League, the Boston Red Sox had a similar 9-game September lead.

No team had ever led a rival for its playoff spot by more than 8 games in September and failed to make the playoffs.

The Braves and the Red Sox, however, tried quite hard, and managed to stumble into the last day tied with the St. Louis Cardinals and the Tampa Bay Rays respectively. The teams didn’t play each other on the final day, instead playing teams that had little to play for. The critical four games were:

Atlanta Braves vs. Philadelphia Phillies
The Phillies had the best record in baseball and had little to play for, but were apparently playing hard to shake off a six-game losing streak before they had meaningful games again.

St. Louis Cardinals vs. Houston Astros.
The Cardinals, having come all the way back from the dead in early September, now faced the Houston Astros, a team that had a terrible year and no real incentive in the game.

If the Braves and the Cardinals had the same result in the last game, they would play each other in a single game to determine the wild card. Otherwise, the winner would go to the playoffs and the loser would not.

Boston Red Sox vs. Baltimore Orioles
The Red Sox, picked by many to be the World Series winner this year, had played phenomenal baseball until September and then fell apart. They faced the Baltimore Orioles in their last game, another team that did terribly in 2011—however, the Orioles seemed to be relishing their role as spoilers and actually had a winning record in September.

Tampa Bay Rays vs. New York Yankees.
The Rays faced a Yankees team that had long since clinched and had little to play for.

As in the NL, if the Red Sox and the Rays both had the same result, they would play each other in a single game for the wild card; otherwise, only the winner would play on.

Of these four games, one went smoothly: the Cardinals and Astros. The Cardinals blew away the Astros 8–0 and the result was never in doubt. That game was also the one that finished first.

At around 21:30, there’s a rain delay in Baltimore. At that point, late in each game, the scores were:

  • Braves 3, Phillies 2 (top of the 8th?).
  • Cardinals 7, Astros 0.
  • Red Sox 3, Orioles 2 (middle of the 7th).
  • Yankees 7, Rays 0 (end of the 6th).

The situation was fairly clear: if the Braves could hold on, there would be an extra game for them against the Cardinals; if the Red Sox could hold on, they would grab the AL wild card. The Rays were done and had to root for the Orioles.

As Dan Shaughnessy, writer for the Boston Globe[1], said in an interview during the rain delay:

The one thing we’ve eliminated tonight is that the Red Sox season is not going to end tonight … The worst thing that could happen, we’d have to play that game in Tampa tomorrow.

When he said that, it was the bottom of the 8th inning, giving the Rays only 6 outs to produce 7 runs.

Mere moments after he said that, the Yankees walked in the Rays’ first run (having previously given up a single and a double, then hit a batter). Another hit batter meant another run to make it 7–2. The Yankees got an out on strikes, and then another on a sacrifice fly that cut the lead to 7–3. Two outs, two men on, then the Rays’ star player, Evan Longoria, stepped up to the plate.

And promptly hit a home run, cutting the deficit to 7–6.

Meanwhile, Atlanta coughed up the lead in the 9th, sending that game to extra innings.

The Cardinals finished off the Astros.

There’s still rain in Baltimore, but in Tampa Bay the Rays were on their final out, one run down, no-one on base. Pinch-hitting for them was Dan Johnson, listed with a batting average of .108. As an analyst on a Fangraphs podcast said, this is when he realized that for all their resourcefulness, this was why the Rays wouldn’t make it, because when their season came down to it the best person they could insert into their lineup was a .108 hitter. Johnson took a strike, and a ball, and a strike; the Rays were down to the last strike of their season. Another ball, and they’re still on their last strike. Johnson fouled the next ball off, extending the season by a pitch.

Then he hit the next pitch out of the park[2]. 7–7. The Yankees had last given up a lead of 7 or more in the 7th inning or later in 1953.

The Yankees got out of the inning and play went on.

About ten minutes later, the Orioles–Red Sox game resumed.

The next major event was the Phillies scoring a run in the 13th inning, and making the lead hold up, leading to the elimination of the Braves, who got to hold the record for the largest September lead ever blown in baseball history.

Top of the 12th in Tampa Bay, and it looked as if the Yankees would score: they had men on first and third with no outs. But their lead runner was careless and got tagged out[3], and the Rays escaped the inning.

In Baltimore, the Red Sox entered the bottom of the 9th with a one-run lead and a record of 89–0 in games this season in which they’d led in the 9th inning or later. They got two quick strikeouts from their closer, Jonathan Papelbon. The odds of the Orioles winning at this point were approximated at 5.7%.

Papelbon gave up a double to Chris Davis. Then he got two strikes on Nolan Reimold, and the Orioles were down to their last strike. Reimold doubled, the game was tied.

Robert Andino[4] came to the plate and hit a ball that looked catchable by Boston (ex-Tampa Bay) star Carl Crawford… who went for a feet-first instead of head-first slide, misjudged it ever so slightly, didn’t make the catch, and the game was over. All the Red Sox could do was root for the Yankees.

In Tampa Bay, minutes later, the score from the Red Sox game was put on the scoreboard. Evan Longoria stepped up to the plate. Three minutes after Andino’s hit and Crawford’s drop, Longoria hit his second home run of the game.

This home run is the second game-ending home run to secure a playoff spot in baseball history, the only other being “The Shot Heard ’Round the World” in 1951.

The Atlanta Braves no longer hold the record for the biggest September lead ever blown—it now belongs to the Boston Red Sox, who had the worst September record (7–20) in their history to drop out of contention.

That both Tampa Bay and Baltimore were down to their last strikes, and that both managed to come back and win their games to put send Boston home is simply incredible, and that three of the four games involved a team escaping a 9th-inning deficit even more so.

[1] And, perhaps more than incidentally, the author of a book called The Curse of the Bambino

[2] Just to add to the sense that this whole thing was an implausible movie script, the previous two biggest hits of Johnson’s career were also against the Red Sox.

[3] By Longoria, naturally.

[4] Andino also beat Papelbon with a two-out double to give the Orioles the lead in a 20 September victory over the Red Sox, and a three-run inside-the-park home run against the Red Sox in a 6–3 victory 26 September… so you could make the case that if not for Andino, Boston would be in the playoffs.

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