Sports writers have been known to make fairly grand, blanket statements from time to time. So, in the spirit of tradition, let’s try this one on for size: Last Wednesday Sept. 28 was the most exciting regular season finale in baseball history.
Call it being a prisoner of the moment if you want; Bobby Thompson can even lock me up himself. It still won’t change what we witnessed.
In the movie The Perfect Storm a meteorologist played by Christopher McDonald gazes at the developing storm on his computer screen and utters these ominous words: “You could be a meteorologist all your life and never see something like this. It would be a disaster of epic proportions. It would be … the perfect storm.”
Four teams, two wildcard spots and two of the worst collapses in baseball history: That’s what Wednesday night was, the perfect storm. You could be a baseball fan your whole life and never see something like that happen again.
The Boston Red Sox entered the last night of the season as losers of 20 of their final 28 games and saw their potential division title disappear into the hands of the rival New York Yankees. The Braves suffered a similar collapse, losing 17 of their final 26 games, including a three game sweep at the hands of the surging St. Louis Cardinals.
Both teams now stood tied for their respective wildcards, each needing a win and either a Tampa Bay Rays or Cardinals loss to advance. If all four teams won then a one-game playoff would be needed to determine the wildcard winners. If both the Red Sox and Braves lost and the Rays or Cardinals won, well, let’s just say the disaster of epic proportions McDonald predicted would play out in the cities of Atlanta and Boston.
Believe it or not, the night actually started off well for both the Red Sox and Braves as they took early leads over their opponents the Baltimore Orioles and Philadelphia Phillies, respectively. In Tampa, the Yankees mounted a seven-run lead over the Rays as first baseman Mark Teixeira crushed his 39th and 40th homeruns of the year.
For both the Red Sox and Braves, everything was going according to plan, that is, until fate got involved – until the storms collided.
The dominoes began to fall when it started pouring, quite literally, on top of the Red Sox and Orioles in the middle of the seventh inning, initiating a one hour and 26 minute rain delay. When the delay started, the Yankees held a 7-0 lead in Tampa Bay, but by the time it was over the Rays had pulled even: the improbable comeback capped off by Dan Johnson’s two-out, pinch-hit homerun in the bottom of the ninth.
Right around that time, the Cardinals finished beating the lowly Houston Astros, 8-0, riding Chris Carpenter’s complete game, two-hit shutout. With the victory, the Cardinals had guaranteed themselves, at the very least, a one game play-off with Atlanta for the wildcard.
Amazingly, as the Red Sox resumed play in Baltimore, the Rays, Yankees, Phillies and Braves were all in extra innings. The entire season hinged on this one final hour.
Atlanta crumbled first when outfielder Hunter Pence ripped a run-scoring single in the bottom of the 13th inning to give the Phillies a 4-3 victory. For the Braves, the loss completed one of the biggest September collapses in franchise history and sealed the Cardinals’ unlikely playoff charge. Atlanta ended the season with a five game losing streak and an abysmal 9-18 record in the season’s final month.
The Red Sox were faced with a similar reality as closer Jonathan Papelbon toed the rubber in the bottom of the ninth inning, clinging onto a one-run lead over the Orioles. He made quick work of the first two batters, striking them out, before surrendering a double to third baseman Chris Davis.
Then, of all people, outfielder Nolan Reimold stepped to the plate, lacing a two-out, two-strike double, bringing home pinch runner Kyle Hudson and tying the game, 3-3. The next batter, second baseman Roberto Andino, completed the comeback with a single to the left that landed just out of the reach of outfielder Carl Crawford.
Final score: Baltimore 4, Boston 3. Just like that, all the Red Sox could do was sit, wait and root for the Yankees, of all teams, to pull out a victory over the Rays.
They certainly didn’t have to wait very long.
Exactly three minutes later, third baseman Evan Longoria of the Rays hit his second homerun of the game, this time a game-winning, playoff-clinching shot just inside the left field foul pole, officially eliminating the Red Sox from playoff contention and completing the biggest collapse in baseball history.
Imagine for a second if the regular season ended exactly one month earlier, on Aug. 28. If so, the Red Sox would have won the American League East outright, a-game-and-a-half over the Yankees. The Rays would have finished third behind the Red Sox and Yankees, six-and-a-half games out of the wildcard spot. The Braves would have won the National League wildcard over the San Francisco Giants by eight-and-a-half games, nine-and-a-half games better than the Cardinals.
Players, fans and media personalities alike will point fingers, place blame and even pop bottles of champagne, but one thing is for sure: You couldn’t invent that ending even if you tried. It’s the beauty of baseball; it was the perfect storm.