“Baseball is just a game, as simple as a ball and bat, yet as complex as the American spirit it symbolizes. A sport, a business and sometimes almost even a religion. This is a game for America. Still a game for America, this baseball!”
That great quote from the late Detroit Tigers’ Hall of Fame broadcaster Ernie Harwell may just be the place to begin in this captivating novel that was on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2011, in Major League Baseball.
Four games were on the forefront of the baseball schedule Wednesday, Sept. 28. The Phillies and Atlanta Braves were playing a game that had different meanings. The Phillies were one win away from a franchise record 102 wins, but that was all the meaning behind game No. 162. The Braves were fighting for their playoff lives.
The Boston Red Sox were fighting for their playoff lives against the Baltimore Orioles.
The Tampa Bay Rays were doing the same against the New York Yankees.
In Houston, the Cardinals were facing the Astros, hoping to lock down a playoff spot as well.
The first three games listed all started at 7:05 p.m.; the Cardinals and Astros kicked off play an hour later, at 8:05 p.m. Those first three games to start were the last three games to end. Two games went to extra innings while all three ended with wins in the final inning of the game.
The only one that lacked drama was the Cardinals’ 8-0 massacre of the lowly Astros. Chris Carpenter’s two-hit shutout extended the Cardinals’ season another day.
The Phillies and Braves played into the night, both knowing their fate. If the Braves win, they could play at St. Louis in a one-game playoff. If the Braves lose, their season comes to an end. They were two outs away from that one-game playoff, leading the Phillies, 3-2.
Braves pitchers Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel had been the force that drove teams to leave empty-handed in the late innings all season. Venters barely escaped a bases-loaded jam in the eighth. Kimbrel couldn’t escape his own bases-loaded threat in the ninth, as the Phillies tied the game on a sac fly.
The Braves didn’t have many threats late, but a few close plays said otherwise. Chipper Jones sent one to the warning track in the 10th, barely flagged down by Michael Martinez to end the inning. A weak roller off the bat of Martin Prado in the 12th nearly ended the game.
The Phillies nabbed a two-out run in the 13th with an infield single by Hunter Pence, and held off a Braves’ chance in the bottom of the 13th with a game-ending double play. The Braves’ season was over, and the Cardinals advanced to the NLDS to play the Phillies.
In the course of one month, the Braves had an 8 1/2 game lead over the Cardinals in the wildcard vanish, and they get to sit on it during the offseason.
In the American League, the same thing was happening to the Red Sox. A nine-game lead in the wildcard on Sept. 3 had vanished into a tie with the division-rival Rays on the season’s final day.
For seven innings of both games, everything was going according to plan for the Red Sox. They held a 3-2 lead when a one hour and 26 minute rain delay came to Camden Yards, and the Rays were in a 7-0 hole to the Yankees.
As the Phillies and Braves battled through extra innings, the Rays came back from that seven-run deficit, and cut the lead to one with a six-run eighth inning.
Shaky pitching allowed three runs to score with the bases loaded, one each on a walk, hit batter, and sac fly respectively. Evan Longoria added the fireworks, belting a three-run homer to make it a one-run game.
One inning later, Dan Johnson showed everyone what a little late-season magic is all about. Johnson entered his ninth-inning at-bat with a .119 batting average. Down to the final strike in their season, Johnson got a hold of a 2-2 breaking ball, and hooked it fair, just over the right field fence. Tie game.
Back to Baltimore, where the Red Sox returned from their rain delay with a one-run lead. Their season was one out away from continuing.
The Red Sox had not lost a game they led entering the ninth inning all season. So, in game No. 162, a double by Chris Davis, and a ground-rule double by Nolan Reimold tied the game, all while the Sox were just one out away from a possible one-game playoff. The next batter was Robert Andino, and his sinking liner to left was trapped by Carl Crawford. Crawford’s throw to the plate couldn’t get Reimold. Game over.
The celebration alone would make you think that Orioles were going to the playoffs. All they did was force the Red Sox to hold their breath.
That run crossed the plate at 12:02 a.m. Longoria followed three minutes later with the hit that might as well have gone 500 feet. It barely cleared the short left field wall, 315 feet away, on a line. Tampa Bay went crazy, and the Rays had stunned the world and won the wildcard, with the heavily-favored Red Sox dealing with a long offseason.
Just over five hours after everything started, this great night in baseball history, featuring two comebacks in the standings, three late-game wins, and all sorts of goose bump-worthy moments, was over.
Baseball has always been the same barring a few minimal changes. One rule change looming on Commissioner Bud Selig’s mind was the possibility of moving to a ten-team playoff, bringing two wildcard teams into the Postseason. Based on what happened on Wednesday, Sept. 28, baseball doesn’t need any changes. Eight teams are enough, and the excitement of the Postseason is just increased by the excitement of the final days of the season.
If you weren’t a baseball fan before, Wednesday night may have made a believer out of you. If you were a baseball fan already, Wednesday night reminded you why we watch this game. In the end, you certainly weren’t worried about the Phillies’ opponent in the NLDS.
You were rooting for the franchise record. You were rooting for the underdog. You were rooting for David to beat Goliath. Unleash all the clichés, because they all fit.
This is why we watch baseball. This is why it is still America’s game. Wednesday night found you rooting for teams you didn’t watch at all this season. You were on the edge of your seat from start to finish. You remembered what it was like to watch your first game, because you were witnessing something unprecedented in baseball history.
Every true baseball fan will never forget this night. It just so happened to be the perfect way to usher in the playoffs.