Four teams came into the last game of the season vying for two playoff spots. In the National League, the St. Louis Cardinals and Atlanta Braves came into this final game of the season tied for the Wild Card spot. The Braves were on a four game losing streak, and their magic number was stubbornly stuck at two. Likewise, the Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays came into the game tied for the American League Wild Card spot. Both the Braves and Red Sox were trying to avoid epic collapses, having led their races by 8.5 games and 9 games earlier in September.
The complicated thing was that none of these teams were playing each other. None of them controlled their own fate – they had to win and hope the team they were tied with lost. If both won or both lost, then there would be a one-game playoff. So all four teams were forced to scoreboard watch. The four key games on tap were:
- Philadephia Phillies @ Atlanta Braves (6:10 Central start)
- Boston Red Sox @ Baltimore Orioles (6:10 Central)
- New York Yankees @ Tampa Bay Rays (6:10 Central)
- St. Louis Cardinals @ Houston Astros (7:05PM Central)
This was a Wednesday night. My dad and I got together at Buffalo Wild Wings where we could watch all four games simultaneously. It was a good choice. I just remember shifting attention from game to game as each reached a critical point.
How The Games Unfolded
Bizarrely, even though the Cardinals vs Astros game started an hour later than the other three games on the East Coast, it was the first game to end. It took them only 2 hours and 20 minutes to defeat the Astros 8-0. Chris Carpenter was brilliant, throwing a complete game 2-hitter. He had 11 strikeouts and only one walk for a 93 game score. David Freese provided some offense with two doubles and three runs scored. Allen Craig hit a solo home run in the ninth inning. Otherwise it was a balanced offensive attack with ten different Cardinals getting hits, with most of the damage done in the top of the first inning when they scored 5 runs.
After the win, the Cardinals stayed in the clubhouse in Houston to watch the Philles @ Braves game. If the Braves won, the Cardinals would have to fly to Atlanta for a one-game playoff. If the Phillies won, the Cardinals would fly to Philadelphia for game one of the National League Division Series.
This article has a good timeline of some of the other key events of the night:
10:23 p.m.: Evan Longoria hits a three-run homer to bring Tampa Bay to within 7-6 of the Yankees.
10:26: St. Louis completes an 8-0 trouncing of Houston and repairs to clubhouse televisions to watch the Braves.
10:47: Dan Johnson, hitting .108 — a number (without the decimal) considered sacred in many Eastern religions but an outright travesty in baseball — hits a game-tying home run for the Rays when they are down to their last strike.
10:58: The Red Sox resume their game in Baltimore after a long rain delay, a delay that now makes sense as the baseball gods setting this game aside for a bit — like allowing the dough to sit before baking — so that the Boston and Tampa Bay games could crescendo minutes apart.
11:28: Hunter Pence of Philadelphia, with the ugliest of swings producing the ugliest of hits, squibs a broken-bat single to put the Phillies ahead of the Braves, 4-3 in the 13th inning.
11:40: Freddie Freeman of Atlanta grounds into a double play, ending the game and eliminating the Braves.
11:59: Nolan Reimold of Baltimore, with the Orioles down to their last strike, ties the game with a ground rule double off Boston closer Jonathan Papelbon.
12:02: Robert Andino wins the game for Baltimore with a single. The Red Sox, as it turns out, have three minutes to live.
12:05: Longoria hits a home run off Scott Proctor to win the game for Tampa Bay.
There are some key details left out of the above timeline though. The Yankees built their 7 run lead with a grand slam by Mark Teixeira in the top of the second inning. Terixeria homered again in the top of the fourth. Then Andruw Jones added a solo shot in the top of the fifth to put the Yankees up 7-0. Having such a big lead, the Yankees decided to pull many of their starting players to rest them. Curtis Granderson, Derek Jeter, Nick Swisher and Teixeira were all replaced in the lineup with subs in the sixth and seventh innings. The Yankees had already clinched the division, so they were resting their players for the playoffs with the game seemingly in hand.
Dan Uggla gave the Braves a 3-1 lead over the Phillies with a 2-run home run in the bottom of the third inning. Right before Uggla hit the homer, Michael Bourn was thrown out trying to steal third base, or it would have been a 3-run homer.
The Red Sox threatened in the top of the ninth, getting three baserunners on an error, a single and a walk. However, Jim Johnson got out of the jam by getting Ryan Lavarnway to ground into a double play.
They posted the final score of the Red Sox @ Orioles game on the scoreboard in Tampa while Evan Longoria was at the plate. He had to step out of the batter’s box due to the crowd reaction to that Orioles score. Moments later, he hit a home run to win the game 8-7.
Insane Facts From This Night
This was the first time the Yankees had blown a 7 run lead in the 8th inning or later since 1953, according to this article.
The Red Sox were in first place on September 3rd, and had a 99.6% chance of making the playoffs. They were 9 games ahead of the Rays. Similarly, the Braves were 8.5 games ahead of the Cardinals in early September.
The Rays’ win percentage was down to 0.3% when they were down 7-0 in the eighth inning.
Check out these insane factoids about Dan Johnson:
Dan Johnson joined the Rays in 2008, and hit two home runs that season. The first of them was a game-tying blast against Jonathan Papelbon in this game.
Johnson played for the Yokohoma BayStars in 2009.
He returned to the Rays in 2010 and hit the grand total of seven home runs; one of them was a walkoff against the Red Sox.
Johnson has played with the Rays sparingly in 2011, and he’s hit only two home runs all season. The first was a ninth-inning shot that turned a 7-6 deficit into a 9-7 lead, and the Rays recorded their first victory — one they would desperately need, as things turned out — after opening the season with six straight losses. Johnson’s second home run of the season came in the bottom of the ninth inning in the Rays’ last victory, and pushed their chances of winning from less than five percent to more than fifty percent.
Some insane stats from You Can’t Predict Baseball:
Seven of the Red Sox last 10 games were against the Orioles, and they went 2-5 in those games.
The Red Sox were 77-0 when leading after 8 innings coming into this game. Now 77-1. Also, Robert Andino had burned Papelbon and the Red Sox before:
On September 20, the Orioles trailed 5-4 in the eighth inning with two outs and the bases loaded at Fenway, against Papelbon. Andino hit a three-run double, and the Orioles won 7-5. On September 26, Andino hit an inside-the-park home run to expand the Orioles’ lead from 3-2 to 6-2.
Other Sports Don’t Produce The Same Kind Of Drama
Days like this are why baseball is still the best sport. There is no equivalent to this in any other sport. The only one that comes close is the first two days of the NCAA tournament. That is a bit different though. With the NCAA tournament, each team controls their own fate. Win, and you advance, or lose and you are out. What happened on 9/28/2011 was more uncertain than that, and produced a lot more drama as a result. The fate of the four teams involved was partially at the mercy of how other games turned out. They had no control over how those other games ended. Win, and you still had to hope another team lost to advance. Otherwise, you could be headed for a one-game playoff with a very uncertain outcome. Likewise, your team could lose, and still get another shot if that other game turned out in your favor.
The fact that none of the teams ended up tied at the end of this night is surprising enough. Exactly how that happened is incredible, unbelievable or whatever other word you can think of. You could not have scripted the twists and turns of fate on this night if you tried.
The other reason baseball is unique is because there is no way to just run out the clock. You have to make a play to end the game. The Yankees couldn’t take a knee to run out the clock on the Rays. Baseball is situational. Every play happens within a context within the game. Then on top of that, these games were unfolding within the context of the entire season. The Rays’ entire season was one strike away from ending.
Here is a video with highlights recapping many of the key plays from the night: