Commentary

Strange stuff … in 2011 regular season

There was an epic final day and a historically bad individual year, among other things

Originally Published: December 22, 2011
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

Once again this year, the ever-unpredictable sport of baseball was stranger than the Kardashians' idea of marital bliss, stranger than Alec Baldwin's airplane decorum, even stranger than all those commercials taking us deep inside Brian Wilson's facial hair.

So before we immerse ourselves in bowl-game fever, let's remember baseball's Strange But True Feats of 2011 -- starting with a look at the spectacular and highly irregular "regular" season that was and continuing Friday with the postseason edition.

Strange but truest last day of any season ever

I still can't believe this happened, but it did.

[+] EnlargeEvan Longoria
Kim Klement/US PresswireEvan Longoria's home run in the 12th inning on the final night of the regular season sent the Rays to the postseason.

It was the final night of the baseball season, Sept. 28.

The Red Sox and Rays started the evening in a tie for the American League wild-card spot. Then an amazing, practically impossible double feature unfolded in two ballparks (Camden Yards and the Trop) 900 miles apart.

The Red Sox were one out away from beating the Orioles. The Rays trailed the Yankees 7-0 in the eighth inning. Yet somehow or other, it was the Rays who wound up winning and making the playoffs, the Red Sox who wound up losing and completing the most epic collapse of all time, and us Strange But True watchers who were left to try to make sense of it all.

So here come the seven Strangest But Truest developments that sum up the monumental improbability of that turn of events:

• Until that night, the Red Sox were 89-0 this year in games they led in the ninth inning or later. Yep, 89 and 000000000.

• The man they had on the mound, Jonathan Papelbon, had blown one save since May 9, had struck out the first two hitters in the ninth and had two outs, nobody on and a one-run lead -- with the Nos. 8 and 9 hitters coming up.

• Meanwhile in Tampa, the Yankees hadn't blown a seven-run lead in the eighth inning or later in any game they'd played, against anybody, since Aug. 18, 1953.

• So all the Rays needed to do to survive was become the first team in history to find themselves seven runs down at any point in their final game of the season and come back to win a game that launched them into the postseason. That's all.

• But OF COURSE the Rays would roar all the way back to tie the game on a two-out, two-strike pinch homer by -- who else? -- Dan Johnson. Before that swing of the bat, Johnson was hitting .108 and hadn't had a hit in the big leagues since April 27.

• Then OF COURSE the Red Sox would find a way to lose their game on back-to-back two-out doubles, followed by a walkoff single by Robert Andino -- who before that moment was hitting .170 in the ninth inning, .196 with two outs and runners in scoring position, and .239 against all AL East teams not known as the Red Sox. But naturally, this was Andino's seventh RBI against Boston in the last eight days of the season.

• And, finally, the hit that put the capper on this unforgettable night -- and finished off one of history's strangest but truest comebacks -- was Evan Longoria's 12th-inning walkoff homer. So where'd that home run leave the yard? In a low-cut spot in left field known as "The Crawford Cut-out." And why was it called the Crawford Cut-out? Because the Rays, once upon a time, had lowered that section of the wall to help Carl Crawford rob home runs. Instead, incredibly, it ended up robbing Crawford and the Red Sox of a trip to October. OF COURSE it did!

Strange but truest player of the year

Did Adam Dunn's season really happen -- I mean, in real life? I've seen the numbers, printed on actual paper, so apparently it did. But really, friends, it ought to be impossible to do all this:

• On his road to hitting a mind-rattling .159, this guy had more trips to the plate when he DIDN'T put a ball in play (256) than trips when he did (240).

[+] EnlargeAdam Dunn
Eric P. Mull/US PresswireAdam Dunn batted .159 and struck out 177 times in 415 at-bats in 2011.

• He had 52 multi-strikeout games but only 12 multi-hit games. Seriously.

• He got six hits all season -- six -- against left-handed pitchers (in 94 at-bats). Just for comparison's sake, Adrian Gonzalez (who also bats left-handed, last time we looked) got six hits off left-handed pitchers in one SERIES (June 20-22 against the Cubs).

• Other than May, when the Dunner hit a not exactly Ty Cobb-esque .204, he never had a batting average higher than .160 IN ANY MONTH.

• You realize that Dunn went into this season with a higher career slugging percentage (.521) than Gonzalez, Paul Konerko and Troy Tulowitzki (among billions of others), right? You can look that up. He then went out and slugged an incomprehensible .277. That was 50 points worse than Juan Pierre, 63 behind Willie Bloomquist, 69 back of Aaron Miles and 82 lower than Elvis Andrus. You can look that up, too.

• This man had 111 more strikeouts (177) than hits (66). So how many other American Leaguers in history have had 100 more whiffs than hits in a season? That would be nada, obviously.

• And one more thing: If you ignore little technicalities like decimal points, Dunn's batting average (.159) was lower than his strikeout total (177). Other than Mark Reynolds, who pulled that off in 2010, no position player has ever done that in a season where he got more than 40 -- yes, 40 -- plate appearances. And with good reason!

Strange but truest hitting feat of the year

For truth in strangeness, you just can't beat the longest hitting streak of 2011. Let the record show that Dan Uggla did in fact hit in 33 games in a row this summer. But let that record also show that …

• On the day his streak started (July 5), Uggla was batting a sweet .173. That was worse than Russell Branyan (.200), Jack Cust (.215) and Bill Hall (.214) -- three guys with averages so ugly, they got RELEASED.

[+] EnlargeDan Uggla
Tony Medina/SMIDan Uggla had a 33-game hitting streak last season but finished the year batting just .233.

• It was also worse than Brandon Inge (.196), Reid Brignac (.187) and Travis Snider (.207) -- three guys who hit so badly they got sent to the minor leagues.

• It was worse, for that matter, than every player in the big leagues who had been to the plate 200 times except for one -- Adam Dunn (.171). (And thank heaven for Adam Dunn, who ought to be an official sponsor of this column.)

• But hey, at least that enabled Uggla to accomplish one thing during his streak that nobody had ever done: He started so low that he was able to raise his batting average 27 games in a row! (No one else since 1954 has done that more than 18 games in a row, according to streak guru Trent McCotter.)

• And by the time this streak finally came to an end, nearly a month and a half later, Uggla was still hitting just .233 -- after a 33-game hitting streak. Not only was that the worst average in history at the time a streak that long ended -- but nobody else has ever been within 66 points of him.

• That's exactly where Uggla finished the season, too, at .233. Which means that the man who had the sixth-longest hitting streak of the last three decades somehow ended the season with the fifth-WORST batting average in the National League among qualifiers for the batting title. And that's strange-but-trueness at its all-time finest.

Strange but truest pitching feat of the year

When the Phillies and Reds kicked off their May 25 game at Citizens Bank Park, Wilson Valdez was right where he belonged -- at second base. But by the time they finished that game, more than six hours (and 19 innings) later, "2B" wasn't the only marking next to Valdez's name in the box score. There was also this:

WP.

Wilson Valdez
Valdez

Yessir, if you play baseball long enough, you never know who might show up on the mound, hitting 89 on the radar gun and turning into the winning pitcher. So on this night, the Phillies' friendly neighborhood utility whiz did all this:

• Became the first second baseman to win a game as a pitcher since the most famous Cub never to play for the Cubs -- Cub Stricker in 1888.

• Won a game on the mound this season before John Danks, Barry Zito, Phil Hughes, Padres Opening Day starter Tim Stauffer annnddddd … the guy who had started the previous year's All-Star Game for the NL, Ubaldo Jimenez.

• And became the first player to start a game as a position player and finish it as the winning pitcher since … (yessir) Babe Ruth in 1921! And any time you can pair Babe Ruth and Wilson Valdez in the same factoid, you have yourself an official great moment in Strange But True history.

Strange but truest "injury" of the year

In truth, the term "injury" probably doesn't describe what happened to Matt Holliday on Aug. 23. But the Strange But True awards committee couldn't think of another convenient term to describe it -- not without consulting Stephen King, anyway.

At any rate, Holliday had to exit the game in the eighth inning because a moth flew into his ear, without even checking StubHub to see if that spot was available first.

When asked to describe the moth's final moments, after the Cardinals' trainers ended the winged invader's season via the old hidden-tweezer trick, Holliday told the St. Louis Post Dispatch's Rick Hummel: "He died from the overflow of wisdom inside my head."

Ten strange but true hitting feats of the year

• In an Aug. 30 game against the Padres, Andre Ethier did something that ought to be impossible: He got the Dodgers' first AND second hits in the same inning. How'd that happen? It wasn't easy. In between Ethier's hits, those other Dodgers helped make this nugget possible by going walk, strikeout, walk, walk, sacrifice fly, walk, walk, walk.

Craig Counsell
Counsell

• Craig Counsell ripped off an 0-for-45 streak that was so perfectly un-DiMaggio-like, it lasted exactly 56 days. But as our favorite streak guru, Trent McCotter, reports, it wasn't even the longest 0-fer by a position player of the YEAR. That's because Eugenio Velez put the "O" in Eugenio by extending his personal hit-free skid to a dazzling 0-for-46, dating to 2010 -- including a "perfect" 0-for-37 this year, the most hitless at-bats in a season by any non-pitcher Zero Hero in the history of baseball.

• Only the Mets could go 299 games without hitting any grand slams -- and then hit two slams in a span of six hitters. Naturally, the Yankees had to one-up them two months later -- by hitting three grand slams in four INNINGS.

• In a year in which they put up fewer runs, over a full season, than any defending World Series champ in history, the Giants scored 570 runs. The Red Sox had 570 by July 28.

• Speaking of the Red Sox, they scored 12 runs or more four times in September. They went 4-0 in those games. Unfortunately, they went 3-20 in all those September games where they forgot to score by the dozen.

• As loyal reader Joel Luckhaupt reports, in a May 16 game against the Reds, the ever-resourceful Miguel Cairo saw 12 pitches in the sixth inning -- and didn't swing at any of them. This was season No. 25 in the fabulous pitch-count era, and nobody has ever gone swing-free in an inning for that many pitches except Cairo, a guy who (in an extremely unrelated development) hasn't walked 20 times in a season in over a decade.

• Juan Pierre managed to raise his on-base percentage from .307 to .321 during a game in which his team was being no-hit by Francisco Liriano (who was helpful enough to walk him three times). Try that on your X Box 360 sometime.

• In a season in which Hanley Ramirez, Miguel Cabrera, Albert Pujols and Rafael Furcal hit zero triples, Mets pitcher Jonathon Niese hit a PINCH triple (but was stranded at third, naturally).

• As loyal tweeter Kevin Dubin reports, Carlos Pena had twice as many bunt hits this year (eight) as Ichiro Suzuki (four).

• And only Derek Jeter could hit a home run for his 3,000th hit, in the middle of a 5-for-5 game. How unlikely was that? Jeter hadn't had a five-hit game in six years. Nobody had ever gotten five hits in a game at the new Yankee Stadium. And Jeter hadn't hit an outside-the-park homer at The Stadium in over a year.

Ten strange but true pitching feats of the year

• It's hard to remember now, but Daisuke Matsuzaka made back-to-back starts in which he gave up exactly one hit. And you could tell that was coming, right? Wrong. In the start immediately preceding all that, he allowed seven hitters IN A ROW to reach base.

• As loyal reader Tom Wilson reports, the Rangers went through four decades of life in Arlington without ever having a 40-year-old reliever save a game. Then, of course, they got saves from Darren Oliver (age 40 years, 199 days) and Arthur Rhodes (41 years, 182 days) on back-to-back days.

• On his way to carving a very special place in strange-but-true box-score history, the Royals' Vin Mazzaro gave up 14 earned runs in 2 1/3 innings -- in relief. Mariano Rivera, meanwhile, didn't give up 14 earned runs all season in relief -- for the seventh season.

Aroldis Chapman
Chapman

• As loyal reader Marty Bernoski reports, Aroldis Chapman had a stretch over three outings in which he managed to allow eight runs -- and get one out.

• Justin Verlander faced 50 consecutive hitters over three starts without allowing a hit to any of them. Meanwhile, White Sox pitcher Zach Stewart faced 49 hitters in his final two starts of the season -- and gave up hits to 23 of them.

• In his four seasons with the Padres, Mike Adams NEVER allowed a home run to a left-handed hitter that put his team behind. So take a wild guess what happened when he faced his first left-handed hitter after getting traded to Texas? He gave up a game-winning home run to Brennan Boesch. What else?

• Incredibly, the two starters in June 28's White Sox-Rockies game -- Gavin Floyd and Jason Hammel -- had exactly the same pitching line (7-6-2-2-2-0). That's a feat so rare, it had happened only once in the previous 30 years. So, naturally, it took only nine weeks until it happened again -- with Ubaldo Jimenez and Rich Harden spinning off dueling 6-6-3-3-2-6 lines in an Indians-A's game.

• In an Aug. 14 game against the Cubs, Braves rookie Arodys Vizcaino marched out of the bullpen, faced three hitters, struck out all three and still, somehow, succeeded in A) blowing a save and B) pitching only 2/3 of an inning. Those strike-three wild pitches make all sorts of strange-but-true feats possible, don't they?

• There's an excellent chance Red Sox rookie Kyle Weiland will never forget the very first game of his big league career -- since he got ejected from it (for plunking Vlad Guerrero). Plate ump Marty Foster, who was still worked up about the benches clearing two days earlier, was the perpetrator. Just so you know, Weiland and John Lannan (2007) are the only pitchers in the last 15 seasons to get the boot in their big league debuts.

• In two different games this year, the Yankees scored at least 17 runs against the A's. Phil Hughes started both games -- but didn't get the win in either of them because he couldn't make it through five innings.

Five strangest but truest games of the year

• In a completely insane June 24 game between the Nationals and White Sox, the teams combined for zero runs before the eighth inning and 14 runs from the eighth inning on. You can thank that trusty Nationals bullpen, which blew leads in the ninth, 10th and 12th innings of that game. And the Nats still won it, 9-5, in 14.

Chicago Cubs

• Only the Cubs could win an Aug. 14 game against Atlanta in which they struck out 18 times, drew no walks and committed four errors. How many other teams in modern history have won a game in which they did all that? None, of course. But remember, they're the Cubs!

• The Reds figured out a way to lose a July 28 game against the Mets even though they thumped eight doubles and two homers while doing it. How crazy is that, you ask? The Reds had lost one other game in the history of the franchise in which they got 10 extra-base hits -- 24 years earlier to the day.

• We hereby salute the Diamondbacks' 7-6 win over the Dodgers on Sept. 27 for giving us the strangest but truest extra inning of the year. Arizona gave up five runs in the top of the 10th, had its first two hitters make outs in the bottom of the 10th, then went single-single-walk-error-walk, followed by a see-ya-later slam from Ryan Roberts. Your winning pitcher: That was Micah Owings, who faced nine hitters in the 10th and let six of them reach base.

• And you can thank U2's South Florida concert-scheduling geniuses for allowing the Marlins to travel 3,300 miles to lose a "home" game in Seattle after reliever Steve Cishek wild-pitched home the winning run in the 10th inning -- while he was trying to issue an intentional walk to Carlos Peguero. After which, by the way, Cishek pitched to Peguero after issuing three intentional balls -- and struck him out.

Strange but true minor league happenings of the year

Finally, here's a big thank you to ESPN's brilliant "Kernel" collector, Doug Kern, for these two gems from the depths of Farm Land:

• You had to see the Double Play of the Year to believe it, so take a look (as soon as you finish reading this column). But get out your scorecards first, because you'll be watching those creative New Britain Rock Cats turn your basic 3-2-6-1-5-3-4-6-8 DP on May 26, ending with the center fielder applying the tag while covering second base. Of course he was.

• But as wild as that play was, we're still not sure it was nuttier than our Triple Play of the Year, thanks to the, uh, heady play by Brewers prospect Logan Schafer. In an Aug. 20 Omaha-Nashville game, he took a fly ball off his coconut and still turned it into A) a catch, before it hit the ground, and B) two confused runners getting doubled and tripled off their respective bases. You've gotta check this one out.

It's because of implausible happenstances like these that baseball is the strangest, truest and greatest sport ever invented. And we wouldn't have it any other way.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in a new paperback edition, in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

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Senior Writer, ESPN.com