Eleven Minutes that Changed Baseball

Sports Illustrated baseball writer Joe Posnanski once said “I never argue with people who say baseball is boring because baseball is boring. But then, suddenly it isn’t. And that’s why it’s great.”

This quote has never been truer than it was on Wednesday night.

September 28 had been circled on every baseball player and fan’s calendar since last year as the final day of the 2011 regular season. It looked to be a finale just like practically every one before it. With one team having a commanding lead for each of the eight playoff positions as the beginning of September, it looked like game 162 would be meaningless for all 30 teams. There was even chatter about how to add a fifth team to each league’s playoffs to make September more exciting.

That was, until the collapses happened.

The Boston Red Sox and the Atlanta Braves each held sizable leads for the American and National League Wild Cards as the last month of the season began. However, after 161 games had been played, the Red Sox found themselves in a tie with the Tampa Bay Rays, and the Braves with the St. Louis Cardinals for those wild cards. Thanks to a video on Major League Baseball’s website, we have a firm timeline that shows just how crazy that Wednesday night was. By sheer luck, Tampa and Boston’s final games started at 7:10. Even luckier, they both ended just after midnight. What happened in between will be remembered for years to come.

The Red Sox and the Baltimore Orioles became engaged in a back and forth duel featuring three lead changes in the first six innings. Tampa and the Yankees? Not so much. The Yankees exploded offensively to hold a seven run lead in the middle of the eighth inning. Further complicating matters, rain hit Oriole Park at Camden Yards in the middle of the seventh, forcing a delay and causing rumors to be spread that the rest of the game could be cancelled and the Red Sox awarded the victory by virtue of their 3-2 lead at the time. In response to this, Oriole announcer Gary Thorne gave a statement of fact that turned out to be almost prophetic, telling the audience “nine innings will be played.”

When the Red Sox went to their locker room for the delay at 9:33 p.m., their path was clear: beat the Orioles and win the wild card. While sitting in their clubhouse, they watched St. Louis beat Houston, Philadelphia take the lead over Atlanta in the 13th inning that would ultimately eliminate the Braves from postseason contention. However, the most important development they saw during the nearly 90 minute interlude was Tampa, scoring six runs in the eighth and one in the ninth to force extra innings. Baltimore and Boston resumed play at 10:58, and what came a mere 55 minutes would change the future of two organizations.

At 11:54, the Rays were once again in trouble. The Yankees had runners on first and third base with nobody out, and Tampa was running out of available pitchers. The Yankees’ Jorge Posada grounded a ball to Evan Longoria at third. Greg Golson, the runner on third, first broke for home on contact, then decided to go back to his base. However, he was tagged out by Longoria, fundamentally changing the makeup of the inning.

Simultaneously, with two out in the bottom of the ninth at Oriole Park, Baltimore’s Chris Davis hit a two-strike pitch into the right field corner to keep the game alive for the Orioles. Five minutes later, at one minute to midnight, Baltimore’s Nolan Reimold hit an automatic double that one-hopped into the seats in right-center field. The run from second scored to level the game at three. Three minutes later, Robert Andino, who had been a thorn in the Sox’s side all September long, hit a sinking line drive to left. Carl Crawford dove in pursuit of the ball, and it hit into and out of his glove and rolled through left field. Crawford recovered in time to make a desperation heave of the ball towards home, but it was too late. Reimold came home safely, finishing the shocking comeback, which left Gary Thorne so speechless that he could only exalt “They did it! They did it! They did it!” The Orioles piled on each other and celebrated as if they had just won the pennant; they had done it, the lowly Orioles had pushed the mighty Red Sox to the brink of elimination on national television.

All eyes then shifted to Tampa. The score was posted in Tropicana Field just after the walk off hit to a standing ovation from the Rays faithful, as Longoria stepped up to the plate in the bottom of the 12th inning. At 12:05, Thursday morning, 11 minutes after the Rays looked like they were on the verge of being left out from the postseason, Longoria wrapped a high line drive around the left-field foul pole and over the fence for the game-winning, wild-card clinching home run, culminating the most exciting night Major League Baseball has likely ever experienced. The last playoff spot belonged to Tampa Bay, and with it, the chance to go to the World Series.

Nate Sliver of the New York Times calculated the odds of the American League Wild Card race ending in the manner it did, with the Red Sox having a large lead on September 1, and the Rays coming back from down seven in the final game, to be one-in-278 million. What are the Rays’ odds of making the World Series now? One-in-four.

I think they will like those odds a lot better.