ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Where was the best seat in the house for something like this? The final day of the season, four games, four different cities, each with playoff implications. The best place, of course, was your couch at home, where you could take in all the action as it happened - no relying on the scoreboard to show highlights, no peering at the out-of-town scores and wondering if they're up-to-the-minute.
But imagine what it was like in the normally stale Tropicana Field on September 28, 2011, as Rays fans were treated to updates to three games that swung the postseason fortunes of four teams, plus a game happening right in front of them, the first one to start and the last one to end, the one that decided it all.
At 7:10 eastern, the first pitch was thrown in St. Petersburg (Rays vs. Yankees), Atlanta (Braves against Phillies), and Baltimore (Orioles vs. Red Sox). Four hours later, none of those games were over, the two playoff spots available still up for grabs. Their drama easily overshadowed the fourth big game of the night, the Houston-St. Louis tilt that started at 8:10 and was over about 10 minutes later. The Cardinals scored four runs in the first, Chris Carpenter only gave up two hits, and St. Louis beat the hapless Astros 8-0 to clinch a tie for the NL Wild Card spot. After the game, they boarded a plane for St. Louis not knowing if their next game would a one-game playoff at home against Atlanta or Game 1 of the NLDS in Philadelphia.
The Phillies and Braves were deciding that one for themselves down in Dixie, with Atlanta hoping to avert a huge collapse, while Philadelphia was trying to knock their division rival out of the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Rays and Red Sox were tied for the AL Wild Card lead, with the Rays needing to get past the division-champion Yankees at home and the Red Sox forced to deal with the lowly Orioles on the road. The next five hours were a flurry of game- and season-changing swings, shifts of momentum so dramatic it gave viewers whiplash. If you were watching at home and you took too long watching a replay of another dramatic hit, you risked missing watching the next one. It was a baseball night for the ages.
(All Times Eastern)
7:40 - Dustin Pedroia singles for Boston, driving in the first run in Baltimore.
7:54 - Mark Teixiera hits a grand slam for New York, putting the Yankees up 5-0 in the second inning.
8:03 - Dan Uggla homers for Atlanta, putting the Braves up 3-1 in the third.
8:06 - J.J. Hardy hits a two-run home run for Baltimore, putting the Orioles ahead of Boston 2-1.
8:20 - A balk ties the game in Baltimore.
8:35 - Teixiera homers again for New York, making it 6-0. While he's being congratulated in the dugout, Pedroia homers for Boston, and the Red Sox are ahead 3-2.
9:07 - After three scoreless innings in Atlanta, the Braves' Jack Wilson commits an error to reduce the Braves' lead to 3-2.
9:34 - With Boston leading 3-2, the seventh-inning stretch turned into a rain delay. As they walked into their clubhouse, they saw that Tampa Bay was trailing 7-0, and they breathed a sigh of relief. They had gone 7-19 in September to blow a 9-game lead in the wild card, but now it looked like they'd get in anyway. After all, at that exact point, Tampa Bay's win expectancy was 0. Nada. The Red Sox sat back to watch like the rest of the country.
While it was raining in Baltimore ...
9:56 - A Chase Utley sacrifice fly ties the Philadelphia-Atlanta game at 3-3 in the top of the ninth.
10:11 - Wilson strikes out for the final out in the bottom of the ninth. Atlanta and Philadelphia are going to extra innings.
10:17 - Sam Fuld draws a bases-loaded walk for Tampa Bay's first run. It was still 7-1 in the eighth inning in their game, but Fuld's walk was the start of something. Because then Sean Rodriguez was hit by a pitch to score a second run, and a sacrifice fly scored a third run. Then, at
10:23 - Evan Longoria hits a three-run home run to cut the Rays deficit to 7-6.
Here, then, came one of those Baseball Moments, the kind of thing that happens only in America's oldest sport. At 10:47, the Rays were one out from likely elimination. They were trailing 7-6, while the Red Sox were waiting out a rain shower with a 3-2 lead. Coming up to bat for Tampa Bay was Dan Johnson, a .108 hitter who hadn't gotten a hit since April 27. The last hope for Tampa had almost no hope of getting it done. But then,
10:47 - Johnson hits a deep line drive to right field that says fair by about two inches. Home run. Tie game. Bedlam. Chaos. And the night was just getting started.
10:58 - In Baltimore, the Red Sox wander out of the clubhouse in a daze. Their game was continuing, while they had watched their sure playoff berth disappear into the seats in Tampa Bay. They still had the lead in their game, but if this was a boxing match, they were staggering.
11:13 - In Atlanta - remember this game? - Martin Prado grounds out with runners on the corners to end the 12th inning. On to the 13th.
11:18 - Boston's Marco Scutaro is thrown out at home trying to extend Boston's lead. It remains 3-2 entering the ninth.
11:28 - A two-out infield single by Hunter Pence in the 13th inning gives the Phillies the lead for the first time since the top of the first.
11:40 - Phillies 4, Atlanta 3, Final. Atlanta is eliminated. On their flight back home, St. Louis starts to celebrate their playoff berth. Meanwhile, Jonathan Papelbon is in the game to close it out for Boston, with a win giving them no worse than a tie for the Wild Card. He strikes out the first two batters before giving up a first-pitch double to Chris Davis.
11:59 - Nolan Reimold hits a double for Baltimore, tying the game.
12:02 - Robert Andino hits a sinking liner to left. At first, it looks like Carl Crawford is going to catch it, but he just misses it. Reimold scores. Baltimore wins. The Red Sox walk off the field in shock, their collapse complete.
12:05 - In St. Petersburg, with Evan Longoria up in the bottom of the 12th, the sign appears on the scoreboard: BAL 4, BOS 3, F. The crowd goes wild, cheering madly and ringing their cowbells, believing in miracles. The Rays are on the top step of the dugout, pounding the railing in anticipation. Longoria steps out of the batters box because of the cheering, calming himself. He steps back in. He swings. A low liner to left. Hooking. Sinking.