On arguably the most exciting night in Major League Baseball regular-season history, it was great to be a supporter of the St. Louis Cardinals and Tampa Bay Rays.
But it was very painful to be a fan of the Atlanta Braves and Boston Red Sox, who ignominiously secured their places in baseball’s pennant race collapse clubhouse, alongside the likes of the 2007 New York Mets, 1995 California Angels, 1964 Philadelphia Phillies and 1951 Brooklyn Dodgers, all of which squandered postseason berths with sizable September swoons.
And rest assured, it wasn’t a lot of fun for executives at Liberty Media, Fox and Turner Sports. Or evidently for some Saawwx supporters at ESPN, either.
The fate of the Wild Cards aside, playoff positioning for Texas and Detroit in the American League and Milwaukee and Arizona in the National League was also at stake on Sept. 28. Indeed entering game 162, there were only two postseason certainties: the Phillies and the New York Yankees held the top seeds in their respective leagues.
Staring at a potential pair of Thursday Wild Card tiebreakers — Atlanta-St. Louis in the National League, Boston-Tampa Bay in the junior circuit — TBS was struck out with both.
Their best starter Tim Hudson on the hill, the Braves were tomahawked by Hunter Pence throwing out Dan Uggla at the plate and shortstop Jack Wilson blowing a double play ball that enabled the Phillies to draw near before rookie closer Craig Kimbrel flushed a 3-2 lead in the ninth.
The Braves coughed up the last bit of their 8.5-game September Wild Card lead to the Phillies in the unlucky 13th. With the Cardinals having already disposed of Houston, MLB’s worst team, 8-0, Pence, who escaped the Astros’ mess at the trade deadline, finalized Atlanta’s descent into the abyss with a run-scoring squibb single through the infield into shallow right. Hence, the revamped Braves, part of John Malone’s revised Liberty Capital, were sent packing from The Ted with a five-game losing streak as the final line of their 2011 epitaph.
Now, the Cards pack their bags and head to Philly, while the Brew Crew entertain the Diamondbacks in Milwaukee.
For their part, the Red Sox did the Braves a half-game better in the flop file. Entering September, Boston headed the AL East before falling behind their nemesis in New York and finally to Tampa.
More importantly from a Nielsen perspective, much of Red Sox Nation won’t be counted among the audience for TBS’s presentation of American League Division Series. For those keeping score, the Bosox and their backers have also been shut out from Fox’s coverage of the American League Championship Series and/or World Series for that matter.
On the last day of the 2011 regular season, Mother Nature played her part with an 86-minute rain delay going into the middle of the seventh in Baltimore. Foolish base-running and a lack of clutch-hitting by Boston also kept the Orioles in it Wednesday night, setting the stage for the Fenwayers’ ultimate fold in the final frame at Camden Yards.
That came courtesy of closer Jonathan Papelbum, er, Papelbon. You know, the man who said he deserved to be the closer in the 2008 All-Star Game, the final major event at the old Yankee Stadium. After being assailed by Yankee fans and the media for his arrogance, Papelbum recanted, saying he intended no disrespect to Mariano Rivera with his remarks about last-man positioning in the house where you gotta close with Mo.
Meanwhile down in St. Petersburg at The Trop, David Price had nothing for the Rays, who were tied with the Sox entering the final, scheduled regular-season game. Price surrendered a pair of home runs to New York’s Mark Texeira, including a second-inning grand slam, and left trailing 6-0. Andruw Jones added another dinger and Tampa was down 7-0 entering the bottom of the eighth. But Yankee southpaw Boone Logan and righty Luis Ayala both faltered, imploding for a combined six runs, capped by a three-run jack by Evan Longoria.
Then in the bottom of the ninth, Corey Wade, another important member of the Bronx Bombers’ bullpen, got the first two batters and reached two strikes on pinch-hitter Dan Johnson, who hadn’t homered since April. Wade hung a breaking ball and Johnson deposited it down the right-field line to tie it!
Back in Baltimore, Papelbum closed out the Red Sox season by surrendering three consecutive hits after two were away. Boston, which had been 77-0 leading after eight, suffered a blemish for the ages, one that left Karl Ravech, the skipper of the Baseball Tonight Bosox fan club, reaching for excuses for his beloved. Thought the late lamenting and emoting sorrow about the administration of a team’s last rites were the tasks of the hometown media, in this case, regional sports network NESN, not a worldwide leader.
Instead, Ravech asked ESPN teammates Barry Larkin and Bobby Valentine where were the Yankees’ top relievers, David Robertson and all-time saves leader Rivera, as the lead diminished. He talked about how the Phillies played their regular lineup to the end against the Braves, while noting that the Yankees had pulled most of its starters as they etched their edge. Ravech counted just 30 homers among the Yankees on the field at game’s end against Tampa. That was just short of Longoria’s tally for the season, according to his calculations, with the final bomb the one Ravech couldn’t bring his heart to compute.
Since John Kruk, Curt Schill and Nomaaaaa weren’t in his clubhouse, Ravech didn’t find a shoulder to cry on. Larkin responded by saying you don’t lose a nine-game lead in September and then expect the Yankees to help. Bobby V also seemed to pooh-pooh Ravech’s prattle, saying it was tough for New York to put its foot back on the gas once the lead was lost.
Perhaps Ravech should have postulated that Ayala’s aim was to torment the Sox. Or, that Wade purposely waited until the absolute last moment to blow his first save opportunity in order to stick it to Boston. Or maybe Greg Golson was instructed to get caught off third on a bouncer to Longoria with nobody out in the Yankees’ 12th.
And maybe New York manager Joe Girardi was just waiting for the right moment to summon Scott Proctor, the man affectionately known as The Proctologist in some Empire State quarters, for the kind of pain he has inflicted on a part of Yankee fans’ anatomy over two stints in the Bronx.
Having already wrapped up the American League’s postseason home-field advantage last weekend, Girardi knew from recent first-hand experience what can result from an exam by the man. During the second game of the Yankees-Red Sox doubleheader on Sunday, Girardi granted the Sox a pardon of sorts, by not playing through various relief scenarios for a tiring Ivan Nova that cost New York the lead.Then with the game tied, Girardi elected not to use resting position players in key pinch-hitting spots in the ninth and in extras. A Yankee win would have swept the three-game set and perhaps much of the Sox’ playoff prospects with it.
Proctor did his business quickly on Sept. 25, giving up a three-run homer in the top of the 14th to Jacoby Ellsbury, who, along with Dustin Pedroia and Adrian Gonzalez, should top the AL MVP voting for fifth-place Boston, according to Bristol pollsters, to temporarily right the Sox ship.
Against Tampa Wednesday night, the reliever made the pain linger for a while. Proctor stretched through the last out in the ninth, then squeezed past the 10th and 11th. But just three minutes after Carl Crawford — like he had for most of the season — came up short on a looper by Robert Andino that plated Kyle Hudson and made a loser of Papelbum, The Proctologist’s glove fit.
As the Tampa fans realized that their boys were on the cusp of authoring an incredible, historic comeback, Proctor, on a 2-2 count, served up a liner to Longoria that cleared the low fence along the left field line for an 8-7 win in the 12th. If it wasn’t Bobby Thompson, it certainly was the shot heard round The Trop — and The Hub.
The Rays now visit the defending AL champ Rangers in Arlington, while the Yankees host the Tigers and their ace Justin Verlander. Somehow The Proctologist won’t be plying his particular craft during that series, even if Ravech would like to make the call to the pen.