America's Pastime: A Majestic Ending to Another Year of Baseball

Baseball is painted. You can’t say that about any other sport.  You can have amazing comebacks, dazzling plays, or shocking moments.  But nothing rivals the poetry of baseball. It’s the nights like this Wednesday when all you can do is sit back and dare to believe that what happened actually happened.

Here’s the story. Enjoy.

It begins in the offseason in early December, about a week after the Boston Red Sox traded for slugging superstar first baseman Adrian Gonzalez.  The Tampa Bay Rays knew there was no way they were going to be able to keep their fantastic defender, their perennial steals champion and power threat. Outfielder Carl Crawford was as good as gone when the Rays were ousted by the Rangers last October – all they could hope for was that he didn’t go to a division rival. Sorry, guys. With $142 million the Red Sox had a shiny new outfielder prowling around the green monster.

Fast forward.  September is here and while the Red Sox frolic to a 9-game AL Wild Card lead the pundits whine about the lack of a good race.  Just as everybody expected, while Crawford isn’t exactly tearing it up in Bean Town the Rays are floundering without him.

Bo Sox should have listened to Yogi Berra, "it ain’t ova till it’s ova."

Fast forward. Five months of grind, one month of free fall, and poof. A dismal 7-19 month leaves the Sox tied with the Rays heading into game 162.  The Rays are playing the Yankees, best team (by record) in the AL; the Red Sox are playing the Orioles, third worst.

Observe:

Payrolls entering the 2011 season: Yankees: $201,689,030 Red Sox: $161,407,476 Orioles:  $85,304,038 Rays:  $41,932,171

David vs. Goliath?

Owners of the second-smallest payroll in all of baseball, the Rays were charged with taking down the Yankees, owners of the largest payroll in baseball and nearly five times that of the Rays.  Meanwhile, the Red Sox just had to fend off one of the smaller-market teams, the meek Orioles with a payroll nearly half the size of theirs.  Through 7 innings of both games, the score reflected these discrepancies.

Yankees 7, Rays 0 Redsox 3, Orioles 2

Of course the Sox/Orioles had to endure a rain delay. It couldn’t have been any other way.  How else could everything unfold other than in a majestic baseball fashion?

Bottom 8 of the Rays game.  A few hits, a bases loaded walk, a bases loaded hit-by-pitch, a sac fly.  7-3 is still a large hole. Up strolls third baseman Evan Longoria, the most respected hitter in the lineup despite his .245 batting average.  The centerpiece of the organization.  The go-to guy.  One hefty hack and “Longo” shoots a no-doubter into the left field bleachers. 7-6. Sox still waiting for the rain to clear.

But chew on this. According to Buster Olney of ESPN The Magazine, the Yankees have not blown a seven-run lead since 1956. The Red Sox’s record after leading for eight innings this year? 76-0.

To the bottom of the ninth we go.

The Rays face Cory Wade who enters the game with a sub-2 era.  Two quick outs, and all of the sudden it looks like their wild card chances will depend on an $85 million payroll pulling it out against a $165 million payroll.  Down to their last out, Manager Joe Maddon is clearly going to send a slugger up there. Somebody with some serious pop, right?

Nope.

First baseman Dan Johnson hasn’t hit a home run since April 8th. He’s hitting .108.  He’s down to his last strike.  Why he’s even on the roster is somewhat of a mystery.  But all that matters is that Wade threw him a cutter over the outer half of the plate, and he crushes it.

How many times as a kid have you played that game of Bottom of the Ninth, Two Outs, Two Strikes Down by One? Imagine Dan Johnson as a kid: “He hits a long fly ball, deep to right, it’s way back it’s going, gone! DAN JOHNSON HAS JUST TIED THE GAME AGAINST THE YANKEES IN THE BOTTOM OF THE NINTH INNING TO KEEP THE RAYS’ PLAYOFF HOPES ALIVE!”   This is every kid’s dream and Dan Johnson’s reality last Wednesday night.

Now the good stuff.

The Red Sox game gets going again, and after an uneventful eighth we head to the ninth.  The Red Sox are blanked in their half, so they

lead 3-2 going into the bottom of the ninth.  The weight of the playoffs rests on the shoulders of one of the most established closers in the game, the hard-throwing Jonathan Papelbon. And he looked the part too, striking out two of the more potent (read: recognizable) hitters in the lineup, center fielder Adam Jones and third baseman Mark Reynolds.  He’s cruising. Two quick strikes on Quad-A first baseman Chris Davis and it looks like it’s all but over.

Not quite.

Davis doubles. Two strikes on outfielder Nolan Reimold and Paps tries to get him with the high heat. He either needed more heat or height, because Reimold took that offering and shot it into the right-field gap, plating Davis’s pinch runner. All of the sudden everybody’s cheering in Tampa after strike two to center fielder B.J. Upton who confusedly looks around.  A flash on the big board shows that THIS could be the most ridiculous night in Rays history.

Upton strikes out but not two minutes later Papelbon is throws a 1-1 splitter right down the gut to shortstop Robert Andino (who?) who lines into left. Trouble. You can hear the thud of millions of Sox fans’ stomachs. But wait. It’s Carl Crawford. The man we paid $142 million dollars to play brilliant left field. Sure he can come up with a nice play to save our season and fend off the Rays, whom we looted to sign him.

Painted, I tell you.

The ball squirts under Crawford’s glove and a meek throw does no good to challenge Reimold.

76-1. And boy does that 1 hurt.

Now they wait. Now the players trudge into the locker room and turn on the TV to watch Evan Longoria’s at bat. Again the Tampa Bay stadium erupts after a pitch off the plate to Longo, reacting to one of the worst collapses in MLB history.  A nine game lead on one of the most expensive payrolls in September, only to helplessly watch and hope the Yankees can fend off the Rays.

At least they didn’t have to wait long.

Down to his last strike, franchise cornerstone Evan Longoria, the man who brought the Rays back into this game, gets a four seam fastball on the inner half of the plate. And he hammers it.  Not three minutes after Crawford can’t come up with Andino’s liner Longoria shoots a ball down the left field line about 15 feet off the ground.  But how low is that left field corner, constructed to allow then-Ray Crawford to snag a few would-be homers. But nobody’s getting Longo’s ball.  He sneaks it into the corner and it’s all over. A walk-off home run in the bottom of the 12th and the Rays are going to the playoffs.  The Red Sox are toast, the refuse-to-die Rays are playing October baseball.

How fitting that a two hour rain delay caused the games to end within three minutes of each other. How fitting the Red Sox had to pray for their arch-rivals, the Yankees, only to watch with horror as they blow a lead bigger than any in 50 years.  How fitting that Carl Crawford would be the one who can’t come up with the play to save the Sox’s season. How fitting that Evan Longoria would be the one to send his team – HIS team – to the postseason.

Commissioner Bud Selig wants to add more wildcard teams so the post season is longer.

The thing is, Mr. Selig, even you aren’t allowed to touch the art.