This just happened. Less than 24 hours ago, the two biggest September collapses in baseball history came to their dramatic conclusions. Three of the four games played Wednesday night were decided in the final inning. The exception; the Cardinals detonation of the Houston Astros. The Phillies eliminated the Braves in the 13th, the Orioles rallied against the Red Sox in the 9th, and the Rays walked off into the Wild Card in the bottom of the 12th.
All kudos go to the Cards for reeling in the Bravos, but I'm here to talk about the other series; the one that was 1/2 a game more epic in the stat book, but infinitely more epic when examined.
The Sox and the Rays absolutely hate each other. No, this isn't the Yanks and the Sox, but let me be very clear, THESE TEAMS HATE EACH OTHER. Got it? Good. We can go back to 2006 where the two brawled in Spring Training after Julian Tavares threw the ball at then-Ray, Joey Gathright (interestingly enough, Gatright was on the Sox roster for their epic collapse). Fast-forward to 2008 and things just get even meatier.
James Shields hits Coco Crisp who charges the mound. Shields throws a knockout haymaker that Crisp dodges Matrix-style, and once again, the two teams are brawling. As the year went on, the teams kept their battles to within the confines of actual baseball. Going into September 9th, 2008, the Rays had hit a rough patch. Their 3 game lead over the Sox was down to 1 with Boston up 3-2 going into the bottom of the ninth. Jonathan Papelbon, the Sox's dynamite closer took the mound to finish this one off.
Dan Johnson, a little known journeyman had woken up that morning a Durham Bull. Little did he know he'd end the day a cult-hero. Mid-afternoon came and the two teams penciled in their starting line-ups. Johnson was supposed to play first. Having been a huge fan of MLB 2k8, I knew him as the guy with the Oakland hat in the game. That always confused me. Anyway, he had decent power in the game and so I was excited to see what he'd do at the Major League level. Well, his flight was delayed and thus he did not get to start. It wouldn't matter.
Johnson was called upon as a pinch hitter to start the inning. One swing of the bat later and the game was tied. Just like that, the Rays were alive again. They weren't going down without a fight. Keep this name, keep this scenario in the back of your mind.
The Rays would win the East and the Sox would scoot in as a comfortable Wild Card. Both teams would take 4 games to get through their respective American League Divisional Series matchups and would meet up once again in the American League Championship Series.
7 games later, the Rays were on the ropes again. In a text-book pitcher's duel, Jon Lester and Matt Garza put up performances any coach would be thrilled at. However, with the bases loaded with 1 out in the top of the eighth, Joe Maddon called on rookie phenom David Price, to close things out. Four outs and one final grounder to Akinori Iwamura, and the Rays were on their way to the World Series.
Once again, hop in that journalistic time machine to Carl Crawford signing his 7 year, toomanymillion dollar deal with the Sox this past winter. Crawford, the original Devil Ray. He'd spent the first 10 seasons of his professional career in Tampa Bay giving the fans too many memories to count. Now, he bucked the pundits who thought he'd go to Los Angeles or Houston, and signed with Public enemy number 1, Boston.
Crawford had an awful start to the year. So did his Sox. So did the Rays. As the season went on, the Sox recovered and the Rays settled into their third place role they were expected to hold in a rebuilding year. Well, then September came.
The 9.5 game lead the Sox held on September 1, that was down to 7 when the Rays started a 4 game series against the Sox. They'd also have a 3 game series at Fenway a week later. 7 games back, 7 games against Boston. Do the math. The Rays controlled their own destiny. They almost pulled off the impossible taking 6 of the 7. Their one loss, a James Shields stinker on the road.
The lead was down to one game going into the final series of the year for each team. The Sox had a 3 game trip to Camden Yards to face the Orioles and the Rays were to host the New York Yankees for a 3 game set. Going into the respective game 2's, the two teams were tied. The comeback was complete, but could the Rays take the lead?
On the ropes in game 2, Evan Longoria pulled up a remarkable triple play to get the Rays out of a jam. Matt Joyce would later hit a go-ahead 3-run shot that would hold. The Sox would win as well setting up yesterday, arguably the greatest day in baseball history.
Fittingly, David Price and Jon Lester would be on the mound again tonight. Lester, like '08, pitched pretty damn well and had his team up 3-2 going into the Bottom of the 9th. Price on the other hand, gave up 6 runs and didn't make it out of the 5th.
Going into the 7th innings, the Sox had a lead and were ready to turn the game over to their dynamic trio of Aceves, Bard, and the previously mentioned Papelbon. Down in St. Petersburg, the Rays faced a 7-0 hole and had accumulated all of 1 hit. Clock was about to strike midnight.... yeah no, because Boston sucks and the Trop Boys went H.A.M.
The floodgates opened up both literally and metaphorically. It rained like all hell in Baltimore and play was suspended. At the Trop, facing the 10000000th Yankee pitcher of the night, the Rays started getting on base. Hits, walks, and hit batsmen; it didn't matter. The bases were loaded and no one was out. The one run scored, then two, and a sacrifice fly by B.J. Upton brought home a third. Evan Longoria, with the greatest late inning walk up song ever, stepped up to the plate. The Major League leader in RBI's since the all-star break smashed a 3-run shot over the left field wall. It was 6-7 now and the Rays had life.
Around this time, the skies cleared up at Camden and play resumed. A whole lot of nothing would occur until the ninth so let's go back to St. Pete. Two outs into the bottom of the ninth, Dan Johnson (yes THAT Dan Johnson) was back up to bat. Did he have one more miracle left in him? The Rays' version of Robert Horry stood up facing former AAA teammate Corey Wade, facing a 2-2 count. One pitch later, the 31-year old ginger was trotting around the bases fist pumping like he was from Jersey. Tie game.
Back up in Baltimore, Papelbon had taken the mound. He struck out the first two Orioles batters with his high heat and his sinking splitter. A double down the line and a ground rule double in the right field gap tied the game up. Robert Adino stepped up to the plate and blooped a liner into shallow left field. Who was there to play it? Carl Crawford, the gold glove left fielder who the Red Sox had signed from the Rays the off-season before had a chance to give the Sox a chance to fight back in extras. Poetically, he couldn't make the play. An errant throw home and the Orioles started celebrating.
Evan Longoria was at the plate in the bottom of the 12th while this was occurring. Real time, folks. You can't make this up. There was the first applause with Evan on deck. The game was tied. In between pitches came the second; the Orioles had won. Three minutes after that second round of cheers, Longoria connected on a Scott Proctor fastball and sent it over the low fence in left field; time to start the party.
So let's recap.
The Rays were down 9.5 games on September 1.
The Boston collapse was capped off by a blown save.
Carl Crawford, a former Ray dropped the inning ending ball to give Baltimore the win.
Dan Johnson, hit game tying HRs in 2008 and 2011.
The Rays were down 7 games starting their series with the Sox.
The Rays were down 7 runs after the 7th inning.
A 90 minute rain delay allowed the Orioles and Sox to scoreboard watch the Rays come back.
3 minutes after the Sox lost, the Rays won.
As the drugged up kid coming home from the dentist once asked, "is this real life?".
Ha, you bet your ass it is.