Thursday September 29, 2011
I was out last night with friends at a bar called “Still” on Capitol Hill, where I'd periodically check my iPhone for scores. Baseball scores. It was the last game of the regular season and the fates of four teams were yet to be decided. None were my team, or teams, but I'm a fan of the game and not just my teams. This is my time of year.
At one point it all seemed over: The Tampa Bay Rays were down 7-0 to the New York Yankees in late innings and the Boston Red Sox were beating the Baltimore Orioles 3-2 in the 7th. That game was delayed. It looked like Boston's epic collapse would stop here, on the last day of the season, and Boston would squeak into the playoffs after all.
Even when I left the bar it seemed over. I was checking the scores via ESPN's website, which is notoriously unfriendly to iPhones (anyone know of a good baseball-score app?), and, though the Rays had managed to score six (six!) in the bottom of the eighth, the site had given them a “0” in the bottom of the ninth. “Game over,” I thought. “So much for that,” I thought. Some part of me, the Yankee-hating part of me, roots for the Sox, even though, financially speaking, David-and-Goliath-speaking, I should be rooting for the Rays; but I still felt a touch of sadness. The Rays were so close. Plus it would‘ve been nice if the Yankees had ended the year losing four straight.
By the time I got home and turned on the MLB network, it was all back on. ESPN was wrong with their zeroes (zeroes): The Rays had tied the game with a two-out, bottom-of-the-ninth homerun by Dan Johnson (a guy with a .389 OPS) and were battling the Yankees in extra innings. The BoSox, meanwhile, seemed to be battling themselves: they had nothing but scoring opportunities in the 8th and 9th and got bupkis. Meanwhile over in the National League, the wild card race I thought was over (because I thought the St. Louis Cardinals began the day a game up, and they’d killed the Houston Astros earlier in the day) was, in fact, still on: Cards only a half-game up on the Braves, who were battling the Phillies in the 13th.
Braves went down first. No biggee. They never really had a chance. Not against the Cards but against the Phils, whom they'd have to face sooner or later in the postseason.
Over at Camden Yards, after the Sox failed to score with men on first and third and nobody out in the top of the ninth, closer Jonathan Papelbon came in to close the door. He got two outs, strikeouts, Adam Jones and Mark Reynolds. Then Chris Davis, a third baseman, a man who started the day with exactly 1,000 career at-bats and a .301 on-base percentage after four years in the bigs, and who was batting eighth in a pretty crappy Orioles line-up, stepped to the plate.
Do the butterflies of a million fans a thousand miles away affect the players? Affect the ball? Make it tail in toward the middle of the plate? Does our nervousness, our assumption of loss, make loss more likely for events we‘re merely watching?
Because Davis doubled down the right field line.
Now Papelbon faced the no. 9 hitter with the unlikely name Nolan Reimold. Another part-timer. A guy with eight doubles on the year. Two balls, two strikes. One strike away. Papelbon was doing a good job keeping the ball away, and Reimold looked like he had no shot. For a moment it seemed the Red Sox Nation, not to mention the Red Sox themselves, could heave a sigh of relief, and turn to one another and say, “Wow, I can’t believe that almost happened.” Which is when it happened. The ball drifted over the center of the plate and Reimold smashed it into the right-center gap for his ninth double of the season, his 44th RBI of the season, and a tie game.
At the exact same time, the Yankees, who had men on first and third with nobody out in the top of the 12th, began to blow it. Ground ball to third and the lead runner was caught napping by Evan Longoria. One out, men on 1st and 2nd. Chris Dickerson struck out. Two outs. Brett Gardner grounded out. End of inning.
At the exact same time—and the guys at the MLB Network were going a bit nuts here—Robert Andino, the Orioles lead-off hitter, stepped up. A former Marlin, 27 years old, with a career .302 on-base percentage. He was the guy, the other night, who hit the sixth-inning, two-out, three-run inside-the-park homer against the BoSox—the first inside-the-park homer by an Oriole at Camden Yards ever. Now here he was again. He swung and connected. Line drive to left field. Carl Crawford, the BoSox hugely disappointing $142 million off-season signing, from the Tampa Bay Rays of all teams, slid to catch it. He didn‘t. He trapped it. As if, yes, in a nightmare, he picked it up and threw it in but too late, Reimold scored, and the O’s won and the Sox lost and they could only wait to see what happened in Tampa. To see if there was anything of their season worth salvaging.
Meanwhile, in Tampa, B.J. Upton was at the plate when the scoreboard flashed the final score in Baltimore and the crowd, even in this sad-ass, no-fan town, began to cheer and whoop it up. Did it distract Upton? Maybe. He went down swinging.
Longoria wasn't distracted. I forget which pitch it was. The second? Third? No, wasn't it a 2-2 count? Either way, off the bat, I thought it was a double. He swung and the ball rocketed to left field and I assumed it was a double in the corner. Then I noticed the corner. It juts out at the Dome in Tampa. When Dan Johnson hit his homer in the bottom of the ninth, it went to right field, and squeaked over the portion of the fence that juts out in the right-field corner. If an outfielder had been standing there, it looks like he could‘ve caught it without much jumping. He could’ve caught it nonchalantly. But nobody was standing there and the ball squeaked over and tied the game, and that's what Longoria's ball did, too, in the bottom of the 12th, on the exact opposite side of the field. It squeaked over the portion of the fence that juts out in the left-field corner ... and resonated. The moment suddenly had meaning and finality. It solidified everything. It happened.
The ball squeaked over the wall in the 9th. It squeaked over in the 12th. It squirted out of Carl Crawford's glove. David Ortiz squibbed it in front of the plate.
It's a long season. 162 games. This season started horribly for Boston and well for the Orioles. It ended horribly for Boston and well for the O‘s. The Yankees stood to the side, paring their fingernails, as they seemed to in this final series, losing all three games, with scrubs, mostly. But you can’t blame the scrubs. Look at the other teams' scrubs. Look at Chris Davis and Nolan Reimold and Dan Johnson. 162 games, more than $1 billion spent on players, and the season tottered one way or the other on the journeymen. Remember Doug Strange? Remember Alex Diaz? Mariners fans do. That's part of the joy.
The real joy is this: 9 games back in September, 7 runs down in the 8th, two outs in the bottom of the ninth.
How could the postseason be more exciting than this?
Go Brewers. Go Diamondbacks. Go Tigers. Go Rays.
Dan Johnson, rounding first.