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What just happened? The Baltimore Orioles made fools of the Boston Red Sox while knocking them out of the playoffs, and that’s not even the most surprising part. The Rays overcame a seven-run deficit against the New York Yankees, earning victory and a playoff berth of their own just two minutes after learning about Boston’s fate.
It isn’t hyperbole to call Sept. 28, 2011 one of the best nights in Major League Baseball history. Of course, calling it “best” depends strongly on your rooting interest. For me and the rest of my Oriole-supporting brethren and the growing base of Tampa Bay Rays fans, this night was beyond spectacular. For Red Sox nation, it was the culmination of a month of misery.
On Sept. 2, with just over a month left in the regular season, the Red Sox led the Rays in the race for the American League wild card by nine-and-a-half games. In August and early September, baseball writers were clamoring for story lines, struggling to make word counts because virtually every playoff spot was locked up. After the games on Sept. 2, no playoff race was closer than five games, an unprecedented lack of drama heading down the final stretch to October baseball.
But then came Boston’s historic collapse. The Red Sox’ 7-19 September record was worse than that of the 1962 New York Mets, the losingest team in history. Baltimore went 5-2 against Boston in the final two weeks, playing their very best spoiler role, but the climax came in game 162 with the Red Sox in Baltimore. Boston sent starter Jon Lester to the mound to save its season. Lester usually spells doom for the O’s—Baltimore had never beaten Lester in his six-year major league career. The Orioles started Alfredo Simon, who isn’t awful but certainly doesn’t merit the title of “ace.” Things looked pretty good for Boston.
The teams traded runs in the early innings until the seventh inning brought a rain delay with the Sox up 3-2. The Rays were down 7-0 to the Yankees in Tampa and had virtually no chance. Then the Rays started their comeback. Yankee wildness led to Tampa’s first three runs. Then Evan Longoria, the Rays’ best hitter, knocked in two baserunners to bring the game to within one run entering the ninth inning. Pitcher Corey Wade quickly retired the first two Rays in the bottom of the ninth. The Rays sent up Dan Johnson, one of 2011’s worst hitters, to try and catch lightning in a bottle. In a scene that every kid dreams about, Johnson deposited a pitch just barely over the right field fence to send the game to extra innings.
In Baltimore, where play had resumed, the Sox were still in the lead 3-2 as closer Jonathan Papelbon set down the first two Orioles in the ninth inning. And then, more lightning. Orioles’ third baseman Chris Davis tagged a double off the right field wall to give Baltimore a glimmer of hope. Left fielder Nolan Reimold followed with his own heroics, sending another double to right center to score Davis and bring up Robert Andino. The utility infielder roped a single just under the glove of Boston left fielder Carl Crawford to cap an unlikely comeback which guaranteed the Rays a chance for a one-game playoff with the Red Sox if the Rays lost to New York.
The Rays and Yankees traded zeros until the 12th inning, when, minutes after Tampa’s fans roared upon hearing of Baltimore’s result, Longoria played the role of savior once more, blasting a home run off of Scott Proctor, ensuring the Rays a spot in the playoffs and ending the Red Sox’ season.
Words cannot describe the excitement of the night. I was jumping in and out of my chair at every channel-changing, game-changing play. I used every expletive in my repertoire. I was a die-hard Rays fan for a night, pulling hard for the underdog. It was impossible comeback after impossible comeback. For many, it was a “where-were-you-when…” moment that we’ll never forget. A SportsCenter anchor summed it up the best: “Sports are better than anything, always.” What a night.