Rays, Sox and a night you won't forget

September, 29, 2011
9/29/11
1:27
AM ET

When Alexander Cartwright drew up the first modern baseball rules in 1845, I don’t believe he envisioned players with $100 million contracts or games played on fake grass inside domed stadiums.

He certainly didn’t envision nights like this.

Four games with playoff implications, three going to the wire, three blown saves in the ninth, two games going extra innings, one game tied with maybe the most dramatic, clutch pinch-hit home run in history -- certainly one from a guy batting .108 -- and the final game ending on a blown save in the bottom of the ninth, completing the most colossal September collapse the sport has ever seen.

The clock had struck midnight. Jonathan Papelbon was about to close out Boston’s 3-2 victory to secure at least a spot in the wild-card tiebreaker game on Thursday. He’d struck out Baltimore’s Adam Jones and Mark Reynolds. But Chris Davis lined the first pitch he saw into the right-field corner, chugging into second with a double. Nolan Reimold fisted a high fastball into right-center that bounced over the wall for a game-tying double. And then Robert Andino hit a soft liner to left. Carl Crawford, Boston’s $142 million free agent, raced in, got to the ball inches before it hit the ground … and couldn’t hang on.

The Orioles had won. Collapse on the verge ...

Three minutes later, just after the result from Baltimore had been posted on the scoreboard at Tropicana Field, in the bottom of the 12th inning, Evan Longoria hit a low, screaming liner into the left-field corner that cleared the fences by a few inches. Maybe the most stunning few inches baseball fans have witnessed in a long, long time.

The Rays had won. Comeback complete.

We spent the past three weeks sweating and cheering every home run, wild pitch, bad call, bullpen blow-up, broken bat, diving catch, clutch hit, rally-killing groundout, triple play and rookie from Yale. Then this night arrives, a gift from the baseball gods.

How does this happen? How does a team summon up the mental fortitude to look at the scoreboard in the bottom of the eighth inning, see that you’re losing 7-0, know that your rival for the wild card is leading 3-2 ... and win? Yes, the Rays weren’t facing David Robertson or Mariano Rivera -- Joe Girardi wasn’t going to use his best relievers with the Yankees’ first playoff game set for Friday -- but I don’t care if they were facing guys from Scranton or Staten Island, it was an amazing turn of events.

They scored six runs in the eighth, capped by Longoria’s mammoth three-run shot deep into the left-field bleachers. But when Johnny Damon popped up with a runner on second to end the rally, you felt the energy sucked out of the Rays. That was their last chance.

Right?

It wasn’t. They had one more. With two outs in the ninth, Joe Maddon summoned the red-bearded Dan Johnson to the plate. He had begun the season as the team’s first baseman, ah hopeful anchor to the middle of the lineup along with Manny Ramirez, but hit so poorly he was sent down to the minors.

Back in 2008, Johnson had hit another dramatic ninth-inning, pinch-hit home run for the Rays in their first run to the playoffs, tying a game the Rays won later in the inning. Some called that win the most important of the season, the biggest win to date in Rays history. Johnson is one of those baseball lifers; he got some time in the big leagues a few years ago with the A’s, but has spent more time in Triple-A than the majors. He played in Japan in 2009, but the Rays brought him back last season as Triple-A insurance.

And Maddon sent him to the plate. He was hitting .108 in 83 at-bats. He also had zero hits in September. Cory Wade got him in the hole at a ball and two strikes, throwing his changeup that drifts away from left-handed hitters. He threw a ball and Johnson fouled off a fastball. Wade threw another changeup, but this one didn’t move. Johnson hooked it down the right-field line, over the wall -- just barely -- and into history.

By the way: That home run Johnson hit in 2008? It came off Jonathan Papelbon.

It’s easy to say this is what we love about baseball, but it’s true: Anybody can be the hero. It’s a theme I’ve written several times throughout the season. Evan Longoria is the biggest hitter in the Tampa Bay lineup, and he delivered a game of a lifetime. But he’ll get many chances to do that again. We’ll see him in the playoffs on Friday, we’ll see him in many All-Star Games and many Octobers to come. He’s starting to build his legend.

But Dan Johnson? He’s not even the 25th man on the Tampa roster. He’s more like the 32nd or 33rd or 34th man.

And that’s how baseball works. Papelbon and Crawford, big names with big salaries, can’t do the job in one ballpark. In another, Dan Johnson gets us to extra innings. Jake McGee gets out of a two-on, nobody-out jam in the top of the 12th. Evan Longoria swings … the ball heads toward the foul pole … it seems to will itself over the fence … a player is mobbed at home plate. Unthinkable elation. Unthinkable heartache.

What a night, my baseball friends.


David Schoenfield | email

SweetSpot blogger

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