September 29, 2011
I have never been as transfixed on three baseball games at the same time as I was last night.
For those of you who have been hiding under a rock, the American and National League wild card races came down to the final day of the season -- mainly because the Boston Red Sox and the Atlanta Braves picked the wrong month to stop playing baseball. When September started, the Red Sox and the Braves had no worse than a wild card berth all but locked up (the Sox were also vying for the AL East title with the Yankees). But injuries and overall poor play by both teams allowed others -- Tampa Bay and St. Louis, to be specific -- to catch up to them.
(Side note: The Braves used to play in Boston before moving to Milwaukee and then Atlanta. Coincidence?)
ESPN did sports junkies a favor by showing last night's Boston-Baltimore and Atlanta-Philadelphia games on its "family of networks." That combined with the YES Network's telecast of the Yankees-Tampa game and ESPN updates from the St. Louis-Houston contest gave viewers a real-time sense of what was going on with the wild card races.
The craziness didn't begin until rain forced a delay in the Boston-Baltimore game (with the Red Sox ahead 3-2 in the seventh inning). As I turned my attention over to the Yankees-Rays game, I saw that Tampa had loaded the bases in the bottom of the eighth inning. No big deal, I thought, since the Yanks were ahead 7-0. Even though Yankee manager Joe Girardi had gone through nearly every available pitcher, I figured that a 7-0 lead would be safe.
That is, until I saw the type of pitches the Yankees were serving up in the eighth inning. They didn't look like serious, trying-to-get-the-batter-out pitches. They looked more like batting practice pitches. As in, "Here, hit this and see how far it goes."
Sure enough, the Rays took advantage of playing the dregs of the Yankee bullpen. When Evan Longoria hit a rally-capping, three-run homer, a 7-0 Yankee lead turned into a slim 7-6 advantage. Then with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, some .108 hitter by the name of Dan Johnson curled a Cory Wade pitch down the right field line that hit off the foul pole for a tying home run.
Meanwhie, ESPN had cut to the Yankees-Rays game when the Boston-Baltimore game was halted, which meant that every member of Red Sox Nation got to see the Rays' comeback. I can only guess what they were thinking, mainly because I thought the very same thing: "The Yanks are trying to blow this game."
In retrospect, I don't think the Yanks deliberately set out to give up a 7-0 lead. I just don't think they cared as much about allowing it to happen as they would have if their playoff lives were on the line.
My attention then drifted to Atlanta, where the Braves were one out away from pulling off a 3-2 victory over Philadelphia and forcing a one-game playoff with St. Louis, which had shut out Houston 8-0 to gain a half-game advantage over Atlanta. But as if the Braves suddenly remembered their Boston roots (sorry, Red Sox fans), they allowed Philadelphia to score the tying run and send the game into extra innings.
A short time later, the Boston-Baltimore game got going again. The Red Sox threatened to score in the eighth inning when Carl Crawford doubled into the left-center field gap with the speedy Marco Scutaro on the base paths. However, the relay throw beat Scutaro home. Tag applied by Baltimore catcher Matt Wieters. Score remains 3-2.
I flip back to Tampa, where the Yankees have removed anyone with a salary in seven digits from the field. I wasn't aware that this was spring training again, but that's how the Yanks chose to close out the regular season. If I was a Red Sox fan (which I'm not -- I'm a Mets fan, which was worse until last night), I would have been screaming for an investigation by Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig. Still the Rays can't capitalize against Scott Proctor, so the game lurches onward.
Then, I get the news from Atlanta: Hunter Pence just drove in the go-ahead run for Philadelphia in the top of the 13th inning. I switch over to Atlanta, where the Braves meekly completed their collapse with a 4-3 loss to the Phillies. Bye bye, Braves.
As if drawn to collapses, I went back to the Baltimore-Boston game where Jonathan Papelbon was on the mound and in trouble in the bottom of the ninth inning. A two-out double by Chris Jones put the tying run on second base for Nolan Reimold (note: I added him to my fantasy baseball team roster a few days earlier in the hopes of winning my league title, which I didn't). Papelbon got two strikes on Reimold, and then Reimold got a hold of a Papelbon offering and delivered it into the left-center field gap for an RBI double. The Boston-Baltimore game was now tied at 3.
I flipped back over to the Yankees-Rays game, where they showed fans going crazy in the stands. Did the Rays already win the game? No, they just saw the Orioles tie the Red Sox.
Back to Baltimore, I tuned in just in time to see Robert Andino (another late-season fantasy acquisition) hit a sinking fly ball into shallow left field. Crawford raced in and tried to make a sliding catch, but the ball popped out of his glove. Crawford recovered and threw home, but his throw was off the mark. Reimold scored to give the Orioles a 4-3 win and send Red Sox Nation into a deep depression.
That depression surely got deeper only three minutes later when Longoria stepped to the plate in the bottom of the 12th inning against Scott Proctor (yes, that Scott Proctor) and lined a two-strike offering over the ridiculously-short left field fence (I've seen higher outfield fences at Little League parks) to give Tampa an 8-7 victory over the Yankees and the AL wild card.
So in the span of 30 minutes, sports fans saw the Braves and Red Sox complete historic collapses that made the 2007 New York Mets' fall from the NL East lead to out of the playoffs seem tame by comparison. And it all played out on cable TV.