It’s safe to say that Wednesday provided perhaps the most exciting conclusion to a baseball regular season we’ve seen in a great many years, perhaps ever. The night began with the threat of two one-game playoffs looming with four teams in the hunt for their respective league’s Wild Card berths. It ended with a troika of classics beyond anything that could have been scripted by even Hollywood’s best.
Take a look at the timeline of events, perhaps the craziest two hours and change you’ll ever see…
9:35 p.m.: The tarp is coming out on the field at Camden Yards. The Red Sox are up 3-2, Jon Lester is tiring and about to come out after the Red Sox squander an opportunity for insurance runs with two on and two out. Lester looks ready to come out anyway.
9:45: A cheer goes through the 59.4-percent-full Minute Maid Park, most of them clad in Cardinals’ red, as the news matriculates that Chase Utley’s sacrifice fly off Craig Kimbrel ties things in Atlanta, 3-3. Kimbrel walks Hunter Pence, but Kris Medlen comes in to extinguish the Phillies’ threat and get Michael Martinez to meekly foul out to third.
10:20: It’s taken eight (count ’em, eight) Yankees pitchers of varying degrees of anonymity, but once pitchers with a glimmer of postseason hope enter, the Rays’ bats get going. Boone Logan loads the bases before Luis Ayala allows a walk, hit by pitch, sacrifice fly and a three-run home run to Evan Longoria in the bottom of the eighth. Suddenly, we have a game in South Florida; something tells me Longoria’s evening is far from over.
10:25: The Cardinals, who apparently didn’t get the drama memo, do their bit in the Wild Card chase by coasting to an 8-0 win. Chris Carpenter goes the distance, striking out 11 Astros and allowing a mere two hits while requiring an economic 106 pitches. An early assault in which the first five batters to face Brett Myers (that’s former Phillie Brett Myers) score ensures there’s no doubt in Houston. Despite starting an hour later than their Wild Card rival Braves, the Cards have to wait it out and figure out if they’re bound for St. Louis for a one-game playoff or Philadelphia for the divisional round.
10:35: Seemingly out of nowhere, Martinez – a Rule 5 pick playing out of position in centerfield after pinch-running for Ryan Howard in the eighth inning – gets a fantastic jump on a would-be gapper by Chipper Jones and flags down what surely would have been a game-winning double (especially with Michael Bourn running with a 3-2 count, 2-out head start). Instead, we’re through 10 innings in Atlanta with the game still tied.
10:48: With all-time saves leader Mariano Rivera comfortably looking on in the Yankees bullpen, the Bronx Bombers call on former Dodgers pariah and the evening’s pitcher number 10 Cory Wade to close things out at the Trop. Regulars Ben Zobrist and Casey Kotchman go down easily enough, leaving the game in the hands of Dan Johnson. That’s right, 32-year-old journeyman first-baseman, .108 (9-for-83) hitting, two-home-runs-this-season bench-filling Dan Johnson. And what do you know, the pride of Coon Rapids, Minnesota laces a 2-2 offering from Wade down the right field line, nestling in just over the fence and just inside of the foul ball. Down to their last strike, the Rays have a second life.
11:00: All the excitement in Tampa is met with clearing skies in Baltimore and the resumption of play after a one-hour, 25-minute hiatus. Alfredo Aceves comes on in relief of Lester and needs just 12 pitches to retire the side in the seventh, the Red Sox nursing a narrow 3-2 lead.
11:15: Still in search of that elusive fourth run, Marco Scutaro gets gunned down at the plate by Adam (Don’t Call Me Pacman) Jones. The Red Sox shortstop misjudges a ball off the bat of Carl Crawford and gets waylaid long enough for Jones to record his second outfield assist in as many innings (David Ortiz caught trying to stretch a single in the seventh).
11:31: It may be the move that cost Fredi Gonzalez his job. With runners on first and third, the Braves elects not to pitch around Pence and go after Martinez. Instead, Pence (that’s former Astro Pence) breaks his bat to push a Scott Linebrink delivery between first baseman Freddie Freeman and second baseman Dan Uggla, scoring Brian Schneider. The nubber gives the Phillies a 4-3 lead in the top of the 13th.
11:41: The appetizer of the night is complete, as Freeman grounds into a game-ending 3-6-3 double play of the Philllies’ David Herndon, sealing the Braves’ 4-3 loss. Gone is a lead that 33 days ago stood at 10 1/2 games and was 8 1/2 Sept. 2. The Cardinals are officially bound for the playoffs, winning the Wild Card for the first time in team history. They’ll meet the Phillies, the team that won a franchise record 102nd game Wednesday in punching the Cards’ postseason ticket.
11:50: The Rays and Yankees continue to challenge each other against relievers seemingly destined to fade at some point. Scott Proctor allows a pair of base-runners in the 11th, but the threat is dissipated. The 12th starts with back-to-back Yankees singles, but a fielder’s choice, strikeout and groundout –by pseudo-regulars Jorge Posada, Chris Dickerson and Brett Gardner, nonetheless – induced by Jake McGee stifle the rally.
11:59: Oh how heavenly that fourth run would be. Again in the ninth, though, it isn’t meant to be. Jacoby Ellsbury starts the frame by reaching on an error, steals second and is moved to third by a Dustin Pedroia single. Ortiz hits into a fielder’s choice, and Adrian Gonzalez is intentionally walked. The hero is, again, going to be Ryan Lavarnway, the Yalie who helped Boston survive another day with two home runs Tuesday and has the chance to irrevocably etch his name forever into Fenway lore. But the catcher grounds into a double play, sending the game into the bottom of the ninth.
12:02 a.m.: It took Jonathan Pabelbon 28 pitches to escape with a save Tuesday. He worked 2.1 innings Sunday. There were reasons to worry about the Boston closer. After he disposes of Jones and Mark Reynolds with strikeouts in which neither could’ve touched his breaking ball had they been given oars, the concern is eased. But then things unravel … and fast. Chris Davis laces the first pitch he sees down the right-field line for a double. Nolan Reimold works out a 2-2 count before doubling deep into the gap, driving home pinch-runner Kyle Hudson. Suddenly, the pitcher who carried a 4-0 record and 30 saves in 31 chances into September’s third week doesn’t look so steady. It takes three pitches for Robert Andino to bloop a ball to left field. With cameras zoomed out, Red Sox leftfielder Crawford appears to slide near the ball’s landing point. But third base umpire Wally Bell shows the no-catch sign, visible only to Reimold’s back as he motors home with the winning run, and soon out to the middle of the infield to mob Andino as if the hit sent the Orioles to the postseason. All Pabelbon, with his first loss of the season and only third blown save, can do is head to the clubhouse … and wait. The final is 4-3, Baltimore, Boston’s 18th loss in 27 September games.
12:06: Mercifully, the baseball gods don’t make the Sox wait long. Almost as soon as the distraught Sox can get into the clubhouse, Longoria seals their fate. Attrition finally catches up with Proctor, out there for a fourth inning. He opens with a K of B.J. Upton. But on pitch number 56 of the evening, a 2-2 offering to Longoria, the All-Star third baseman launches a laser beam home run that clears the fence in left field so perfectly that we surmised in the newsroom Rays’ brass were out there with a chainsaw and yellow paint paring down the fence height just hours before first pitch in case such a situation should arise. He’s mobbed at home plate by a team knowing full well the results in Baltimore, knowing that they’ve erased a nine-game September lead in one of the most astounding collapses – and comebacks – in baseball history. After 12 innings, it’s 8-7 Rays, the A.L. Wild Card winners.
After reviewing the night’s exhausting results, the truth that what could’ve been two one-game playoffs have been rendered unnecessary may seem a bit disappointing. But fans got four tonight: They got a game Orioles team that didn’t realize it should play like a team 28 games out of the playoff picture. They got a Yankees team that fought despite having little to play for. They got a Phillies team playing for a team record and a managerial record for Charlie Manuel.
Baseball fans got more than they bargained for. And now, they get a few days to rest.