Analysis. History. Perspective.

Sports Then and Now

Rays Win to Cap Baseball’s Wildest Night

Posted on September 29, 2011 by Dean Hybl

Evan Longoria and the Tampa Bay Rays came from seven runs down in the final game of the regular season to make the playoffs.

Before this season, in the history of Major League Baseball no team had ever missed the playoffs after leading by eight games or more in September. Thanks to a trio of shocking comebacks on the final night of the 2011 season, it has now happened twice.

The Boston Red Sox and Atlanta Braves have been two of the most successful baseball franchises of the last two decades, but they now are both going to be remembered for years to come for their epic collapses to end the 2011 season.

For a baseball fan, it is hard to imagine a night with more excitement than was seen on September 28th. On a night that perfectly epitomized the last month of the season for the Red Sox, Braves, Tampa Bay Rays and St. Louis Cardinals, there were emotion shifts nearly every minute as teams tried to stake their claim to a playoff berth.

Rays Rally While Red Sox Fade
On September 3rd the Tampa Bay Rays were nine games behind the Boston Red Sox in the AL Wild Card race. The Rays won 17 of their final 24 games and benefitted from the Red Sox dropping 20 of their final 26 to pull off a shocking comeback.

But it was the final comeback that was perhaps the most impressive. The Rays and Red Sox entered the final night of the season tied for the Wild Card lead.

Things didn’t look good for the Rays early as David Price allowed seven runs over the first four innings as the New York Yankees jumped to a huge early lead. With the Red Sox leading the Baltimore Orioles by a run, it looked like the Rays had to hope for a Baltimore comeback just to secure a one-game playoff.

Then, a funny thing happened on the way to a long offseason. The Rays rallied for six runs in the eighth inning, capped by a three-run home run by Evan Longoria, and then tied the game in the bottom of the ninth with a home run by Dan Johnson (his second of the season).

While this was happening, the Red Sox seemed headed to victory as they maintained their 3-2 lead over the Orioles into the ninth inning. When Jonathan Papelbon struck out the first two batters, it appeared that at the very least, the Red Sox would be playing the Rays in a one-game playoff on Thursday in St. Petersburg.

But suddenly, the Orioles started to rally. Back to back doubles by Chris Davis and Nolan Reimold tied the game and then Robert Andino capped the comeback with a single to rightfield that brought home Reimold with the winning run.

Just three minutes later, Longoria came to the plate with one out in the 12th inning and stood at the plate while Rays fans cheered when the final score from Baltimore was posted. He then promptly pushed a line drive down the rightfield line and it just settled over the fence and in fair territory to secure an improbable victory and the third playoff berth in the last four years for the Rays.

Was September 28, 2011 the Most Exciting Regular Season Night in Baseball History?

  • Yes (92%, 12 Votes)
  • No (8%, 1 Votes)

Total Voters: 13

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Cardinals Cruise While Braves Bullpen Completes Collapse

For the first five months of the season, the Atlanta Braves bullpen and rookie closer Craig Kimbrel were being praised as a huge reason the Braves held a nine game lead in the NL Wild Card race. However, Kimbrel blew three saves in the final month, including on the final night of the season. As a team, the Braves went 9-18 in September, including losing their final five games.

Chris Carpenter allowed just two hits as the Cardinals secured a playoff spot.

Meanwhile, after struggling for much of the season, the St. Louis Cardinals suddenly got hot in September and made the most of the Braves’ struggles. After losing consecutive games on September fourth and fifth, the Cardinals won their next five games, including a three game sweep of the Braves, and ultimately won 16 of their final 21 games.

On the final night of the season, the Cardinals did what they have been doing quite regularly of late. They got a great pitching performance from Chris Carpenter (two-hit shutout) to easily defeat the last place Houston Astros 8-0.

Even after their struggles during September, the Braves got off to a quick start in their final game of the regular season. After spotting the Philadelphia Phillies a run, the Braves tied the game in the bottom of the first inning and then took a 3-1 lead in the third inning when Dan Uggla blasted a two run home run.

That lead lasted into the seventh inning when the Phillies put runners on the corners with one out. It looked like the Braves would get out of the inning with a double play, but a grounder to shortstop Jack Wilson bounced off his chest and allowed the second Philadelphia run score.

Atlanta maintained their one run lead into the ninth inning, but Kimbrel was shaky in his attempt for a 47th save. A sacrifice fly by Chase Utley with one out in the ninth allowed the Phillies to knot the score.

Then in the 13th inning, a single by Hunter Pence scored Brian Schneider with what proved to be the winning run.

Atlanta could muster only four hits and no runs over the final 10 innings to complete a dismal offensive month for the Braves. For the month, the Braves hit .235 as a team and averaged only 3.2 runs per contest.

The Historic Perspective
Typically, I’m skeptical of comments claiming that something that happened now is automatically the greatest thing of all time. However, it is hard to believe that there has ever been a better night of regular season baseball than the one witnessed on September 28th.

You might have thought it was the Orioles who clinched a playoff spot given how excited they were after beating the Red Sox in the season finale.

There wasn’t just one great game, but three games that came down to the end and all had a huge impact on which teams would be playing in the postseason.

It is amazing that in all three games, the team that led with two outs in the ninth inning lost.

Perhaps even more amazing is that the comeback win by Tampa Bay marked the first time since 1953 that the Yankees led by seven runs in the eighth inning and lost. Of course the fact that the Yankees were already secure of their position and played many reserves in the final innings had an impact, but that is still an amazing statistic.

The comeback from the Orioles was also somewhat historic as the Red Sox had been 77-0 when leading after eight innings this season.

For the Braves and Red Sox the late season collapses will certainly have an impact on how they approach the offseason. Both teams looked old and vulnerable during the final month. Pitching was an Achilles for both teams during the month and you can certainly expect some new arms on the mound for both teams in 2012.

The Braves will also need to make some adjustments offensively as they couldn’t buy runs in clutch moments over the final month.

Which Wild Card Team Has a Better Chance of Making the World Series?

  • Tampa Bay Rays (67%, 8 Votes)
  • St. Louis Cardinals (33%, 4 Votes)

Total Voters: 12

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What’s Next?
After what many experts are quickly proclaiming to be the greatest regular season night in baseball history, it will be a tough act for the playoffs to follow. The opening round matchups should be exciting, especially with the hot Cardinals facing the Phillies and the Yankees playing a Detroit squad that has the best pitcher in baseball and has quietly been scoring lots of runs over the last month.

You can bet that both the Rays and Cardinals are not ready to stop their runs after making such amazing comebacks, so you could see more comebacks and miracles as teams look to secure a spot in the 2011 Fall Classic.

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