It’s always hard to find the right words to describe something you’ve experienced when you know it will be the subject of many major pieces of literature in the proceeding decade. Still, while unsure of what, exactly, I just witnessed, I am somehow certain of it’s significance. This night in Major League Baseball was a baffling blur of impossible circumstance. While many remain busy sifting through the wreckage in an effort to define the aftermath of what just happened, the historical significance of the past six hours is undeniable. Whatever it is I just watched will be referenced fifty years from now in books written by far more important people than I.
Back in August, the Braves and Red Sox were preparing their seemingly loaded rosters for a stretch run to the inevitable post-season. September would be about staying healthy, getting a look at some future prospects, and figuring out some answers to the few questions these two teams had going into October. The Playoffs were near and it would take a nearly un-rivaled, historic collapse to keep either of these contenders out.
As September rolled on, the Red Sox and Braves began to leak copious amounts of oil, watching their respective strangleholds on their post-season berths regress to something of a malevolent nuzzle. At some point during September’s free fall, these teams were faced with the reality that they were going to make it to the playoffs limping and in no condition to make a significant run. This became the concern of many Braves and Red Sox fans alike. Even at the ugliest points of this epic collapse, the prospect of either of these teams missing the playoffs was a melodramatic leap.
Somewhere between mid September and tonight, game number 162 slithered its way into significance right under our noses. There are 162 games in an entire baseball season. The idea that the final game could bear any significance, whatsoever, for even a single team is a joke. Tonight, it meant the world to four. It was an uncomfortable shift from regular season baseball to having every single pitch cost you some more of you index finger nail.
As the night rolled along, it looked as though the Red Sox, holding tight to a 3-2 lead over the lowly Orioles, and the desperate Braves, leading the Phillies, would silence the sports radio banter and stroll right on into the playoffs as was always expected. The under-funded Rays were getting a wake-up call form the Yankees, down 7-0 in the seventh at this point. This was a truly exciting, memorable end to the regular season.
This is where things started to take on that odd “I’d have to check but I don’t think this type of thing or combination of things has ever happened before” smell. The Sox-Orioles game was delayed by a sudden rain storm. This meant the Braves game was the only entertaining game left on TV. At this time, the Braves began to bleed a bit, allowing Philly to inch their way to a tie in the ninth off of their vaunted bullpen and Rooke of the Year favorite, Kimbrel. To extra innings the game went, Atlanta’s entire season suddenly on the line.
At some point between weak, fruitless at-bats in Atlanta, the Rays had begun a rally for the ages, loading and unloading the bases in Tampa Bay to bring the game within one run. Clearly the night would have a fantastic finish for fans of baseball. The Rays tied the game up in the ninth inning remarkably to keep their hopes alive while Atlanta struggled mightily to do the same. In the next hour, Atlanta found themselves down a run and short on offense, ultimately coming up empty on their final at-bat of the season. Wow. The Braves are done so soon after that entire promising season.
This was some sort of history in the making already. In Baltimore, the game had resumed now, and come down to the final inning. The Red Sox put their closer on the mound with a two run lead, watching that scoreboard and hoping the Rays would be losing in extra innings at any moment now.
Unbelievably, Boston’s closer soon found himself with a runner pulling into second with another crossing the plate. It was a one run game; for the Sox, potentially a one run season. The next pitch sent Boston dragging themselves into their dugout to hope the Rays would lose and force a tie-breaker the following day. The Tampa Rays controlled their destiny.
In Tampa, Evan Longoria looked up at a scoreboard that read: BOS 2, BAL 3. He was down to his final strike and out of the inning with a home crowd slowly making their way to the concessions stand before the Yankees would undoubtedly be back up to bat. Then, with one stroke of the bat, a line drive found it’s way into a nook in the back of Tropicana Field and it was all over. The Rays were going to the playoffs.
As I give this extremely limited account of a night that will surely live in infamy, I still find it difficult to grasp the specific implications of it all. I feel certain, however, that these events will be remembered for decades to come.
Was this the wildest night in Major League Baseball history? American sports history? It just may have been.