Thursday, September 29, 2011

Baseball Night in America -- the awesome night of September 28, 2011

Sure, I wish the Blue Jays had been competing for a playoff spot, but it's been a decent year, a building year, a .500 year (81-81) with some promising signs for next year and the years to come.

But tonight. Wow. If you're a baseball fan, like I am... awesome. Simply awesome.

If you haven't been following it...

In the National League, the Cardinals and Braves were tied for the Wild Card going into the final day of the regular season -- and tied only because of a Cardinals surge in September, coming from well behind to be in contention. Ex-Blue Jay Chris Carpenter, an injury-plagued star, led the Cardinals to a decisive 8-0 win over the Astros, a dominant performance. So the Braves had to win.

And they were ahead going into the bottom of the ninth, with their outstanding closer, Craig Kimbrel, on the mound. But the Phillies, the NL's top team, tied it up and then won it with a run in the top of the thirteenth, 4-3. A win would have meant a one-game playoff with the Cardinals, but now it's St. Louis in the playoffs, going up against what on paper is a much stronger Philadelphia team (with Milwaukee going up against Arizona in the other NL series).

In the American League, the Red Sox and Rays were similarly tied -- and only because an epic collapse this month by a Boston team that spent wildly in the off-season and that was predicted by many to win the World Series. As if to make the situation even more intense, the Rays were playing the Yankees, the top team in the AL and Boston's historic rival, not to mention one of Tampa's rivals in the highly competitive AL East (where the Blue Jays finished fourth). Meanwhile, the Sox were going up against the Orioles, the last-place team in the division but still a team, after a disappointing year, with a lot to prove.

And the games were played at the same time.

Early on, it looked like the Rays were going down. The Yanks scored one in the first and four in the second and stormed out to a seemingly insurmountable 7-0 lead after five. I stopped watching. I stopped caring. I generally root against both Boston and New York, but, with the Yanks already in the playoffs, all I could hope for was for the Sox to lose and the Rays, a relatively small-market team built on a quality farm system, excellent player development, and sound management, to squeak in, a small victory at the end of a long Jays season. But while the Rays were losing badly, the Sox were winning, carrying a 3-2 lead all the way into the bottom of the ninth.

But then... well, sometimes baseball happens, the dramatic unpredictable that makes the sport so wonderful.

The Rays scored six runs in the bottom of the eighth (admittedly against a depleted Yankees' bullpen -- they used eleven pitchers in the game, getting the staff lined up for the playoffs by not over-exerting anyone), then one more in the bottom of the ninth on a home run by pinch-hitter Dan Johnson (hardly a household name) with two outs and two strikes to tie it up. On to extra innings it went.

At this point, I was flipping back and forth pitch after pitch. The drama was unfolding that simultaneously -- literally.

In the bottom of the ninth, the Sox brought in their all-star closer, Jonathan Papelbon. It looked bad for the Orioles... and for the Rays. After Papelbon struck out the first two hitters, it looked worse -- over. No way the Sox were going to blow it. But then Chris Davis, a strikeout machine, somehow knocked a double to right field, replaced at second by a pinch-runner. And then Nolan Reimold, a decent but hardly spectacular hitter (and, in this game, the ninth-place hitter in the order), drove him in with a double to right-center. All this off one of the best closers in the game. Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, it was tied at three. The Sox looked stunned.

Meanwhile, the Rays narrowly escaped the top of the twelfth. After two straight hits, the Yanks had first and third with no outs, but the runner on third was tagged out on a fielder's choice and then Jake McGee, a young relief pitcher (and the eighth pitcher the Rays used), got the next two outs without giving up a run. Still tied at seven.

Flip... flip... flip... flip... flip... What the hell was happening? It's not like the Steelers were playing. I don't have a horse in the race. Why did I care so much? Well, because, I'm a baseball fan -- and a sports fan generally.

When the Orioles tied it up, Rays fans went nuts. But there was more to come. With Reimold on second, and with Papelbon still on the mound, and still throwing well, leadoff hitter Robert Andino, hardly the sort of hitter you expect to play the hero, slashed a weak liner to left field, where off-season acquisition (from the Rays, no less, where he had become a superstar) and massive disappointment) Carl Crawford seemed to give it little to no effort, sliding awkwardly, the ball bouncing off his glove. With Reimold rounding third, Crawford threw it weekly (pathetically, actually) and off-line to the catcher. Safe at home. Orioles win! Orioles win! Losing 4-3, the Sox and their massive payroll could only wait.

Back in Tampa, Rays fans went beyond nuts. Now they just needed to score. With one out, their best hitter, Evan Longoria, stepped to the plate. He didn't look good, swinging meekly, appearing overmatched by New York's Scott Proctor (who admittedly had already gone two and two-thirds innings, a lot for a reliever). But then... with everyone watching (including, no doubt, all of Boston), Longoria slammed a pitch down the left-field line. It looked to me like it would hook foul, or maybe end up in the corner for a double. But Tampa's Tropicana Field, one of the worst parks in all of baseball, has a ridiculously short and low left field fence. And the ball just barely cleared it. Home run! Really? I couldn't quite believe it, but it was true. Longoria sped around the bases and was mobbed at home plate. They knew the Sox had lost. They knew they'd made it. The Rays had won it, 8-7, and now, having overcome the Sox with an incredible late-season run, they were off to face the Rangers (with the Yanks off to face certain Cy Young winner and possible MVP Justin Verlander and the Tigers).

Maybe you don't get this if you don't like sports, but I felt the excitement, and I couldn't help but be swept up in it. The Sox were out, yes, and that was great, but this was about so much more than that. This was about the agony and the ecstasy of sports. No, maybe not at the level of, say, an Olympic gold medal game, with Crosby scoring the overtime winner for Canada, or of a Steelers Super Bowl victory, of which there have two in recent years, but still... it was awesome.

And I just had to blog about it.


Here's ESPN's rundown:

Four cities, two playoff spots and one epic night. Within 89 minutes, Atlanta and Boston collapsed as St. Louis and Tampa Bay completed two unimaginable comebacks. 

10:26 p.m. ET -- Cardinals win 8-0
11:40 p.m. ET -- Braves lose 4-3 in 13th, are eliminated
12:02 a.m. ET -- Red Sox lose 4-3 on walk-off single in 9th
12:05 a.m. ET -- Rays win 8-7 on walk-off home run in 12th, eliminating Red Sox

You know what's great about sports, though? Even the unimaginable is imaginable. We saw that tonight. 


Oh, and as if to make the night even more awesome, I won my highly competitive fantasy baseball league for the third year in a row and the seventh time in nine years.

Not competitive if I win so much, you say? No, I say I dominate a highly competitive league -- and winning this year despite picking A-Rod with my first pick; losing my top pitcher, Tommy Hanson, to injury; whiffing on Jeter with my third pick, Ethier with my fifth pick, Rasmus with my seventh pick, Hill with my tenth pick, and Wells with my eleventh pick; and trading a back-to-career-form Berkman for Hanley Ramirez just before the latter went down with injury for the year. Somehow I pulled it off through in-season management, trading for Ryan Zimmerman (when A-Rod went down to injury), picking up guys like J.J. Hardy and my boyfriend Eric Hosmer, and stitching together a decent pitching staff with guys like Nolasco, Buehrle, and Vazquez (with an incredible second-half resurgence).

Yeah, I'm in a good mood tonight.

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