Thursday, September 29, 2011

A Reflection On Last Night...

There is no doubt that last night was arguably the greatest single day in MLB's regular season history.

And I missed the first half of it.  

Actually, I didn't miss it so much as I watched them in a foreign land.  Wednesday nights are bowling nights for me and as such, there is one television set near our lanes.  At first, we had the Boston-Baltimore game on (since it was local and on MASN), but then my father remembered that the Phillies were playing on ESPN2, so we got the channel switched and watched the Philly-Atlanta game for a few innings, while following along with Tampa-New York, Baltimore-Boston, and St. Louis-Houston.

The Cardinals game was over almost as soon as it began - 5-0 after one inning?  Seriously?  So with everyone tied, the Braves would have to win to keep up with the Cardinals and force the one-game playoff for the NL Wild Card.  By the time I left the bowling alley, it was the top of the seventh inning in Atlanta and the Braves were leading the Phillies 3-2.  The Cardinals were cruising, and so were the Yankees, who had at that point a 7-0 lead on Tampa while Boston was holding on to a slim 3-2 lead in Baltimore.

After driving home in a massive thunderstorm where I could barely see the road at 9:20 PM, the Orioles and Red Sox were in a rain delay, the Cardinals and Yankees were still rolling, and the Braves still had the 3-2 lead with their ace closer Craig Kimbrel coming in to save it for Atlanta and force what looked like a winner-take-all playoff game in St. Louis the following night....

I'll be honest - I wanted that.  I wanted not one, but TWO single-game playoffs for the respective league wild card spots.  Even if it meant that the Phillies would have only 101 wins for the season instead of a new franchise-record 102.  As a baseball fan, I wanted to see the raw guts and on-the-spot decisions that needed to be made in a kill-or-be-killed atmosphere. Why?  Because my team didn't have to do it.  

Another confession - some of the greatest weekends of my life were watching NFL Wild-Card Weekend when the Eagles had a first-round bye.  For three straight seasons (2002-04), that weekend ruled.  I wanted a little bit of that in baseball too.

Alas, the players on the field made it difficult.  Kimbrel couldn't find the strike zone and before we knew it, the bases were loaded and Chase Utley had tied it up with a sacrifice fly.  Kimbrel is a fine pitcher, but Fredi Gonzalez (or the Frediot, as Ryan calls him) is going to cause his arm to fall off within the next 1-2 seasons.  The same goes for Jonny Venters.  And on to extra innings we went.

During this time, the Rays of St. Petersburg Tampa Bay were starting to make noise.  A 7-0 deficit all of a sudden became 7-3 in the Bottom of the eighth on a series of walks, hit batsmen, and a sacrifice fly.  Also at this time, I was talking to both Dustin and Ryan on IM, and it had already been a pretty entertaining evening, but nothing prepared any of us for what was going to happen. 

Evan Longoria then hits a three-run bomb and voila, it's now 7-6 Yankees.  I wanted that AL Playoff as bad as the NL Playoff, and with Boston sitting on a one-run lead during their rain delay, I felt the only shot Tampa had was to come back and win it to force it.  

Meanwhile, the Phillies-Braves game became like a Spring Training farce.  The Phillies ran out pitchers that may or may not have been present for a split-squad game in Clearwater while the Braves couldn't push anything across and to my shame, as the game went on, I kept hoping that the Braves would just win.  In both of my IM conversations, I must have dropped several F Bombs each time the Braves couldn't plate one.  The Cardinals were already in their clubhouse just waiting for this damn game to end after blasting the Astros out of the water preparing for the possibility of either outcome.

Shuffling back to Tampa, Joe Girardi decided to give Mariano Rivera off and bring in Cory Wade.  For Phillies fans, Wade will always have a soft spot in their hearts for giving up Shane Victorino's game-tying homer in Game Four of the 2008 NLCS; Matt Stairs would hit his moonshot a couple of hitters later against Jonathan Broxton.  Wade gets the first two outs and Tampa is down to pinch-hitter Dan Johnson, who was hitting about .100.  A couple of strikes and the Yanks are close to quieting down the Trop and then Johnson pulls a homer out of his ass down the right-field line.  TIE GAME.  Just had to shake my head as yet another game is going to extra innings.

In Atlanta, the Phillies' bench and bullpen put on a phenomenal show as Michael Martinez (Mini-Mart) runs down a scorching liner that probably would have scored the winning run had it fallen, and the nobodies such as Schwimer and DeFratus were shutting down the Braves' "vaunted" offense while Ryan and I kept groaning that the game would never end.  

The Sox-O's game FINALLY resumed and the Sox immediately started playing with fire as they hit batters and couldn't score anything even with runners in scoring position.  So some time around 11:15 PM last night, you had two games in extra innings and one in the late innings, all with close or tied scores, and all with massive playoff implications.

In the 13th inning, the Phillies finally pushed a run across, and I was cursing up a storm.  I think I need to do penance for it.  My actual words to Ryan were contained in the following screen shot as Hunter Pence came up to bat in the top of the 13th (warning - bad language ensues in all these screenshots)...

In the bottom of the 13th, David Herndon was called upon to save the game and drive a stake into the hearts of the 231 people who remained in Turner Field - that's what they call a 'sellout'.  Again, I wanted him to blow the game (Mea Maxima Culpa!)


He didn't, as Freddie Freeman grounded into the slowest developing 3-6-3 double play I have ever seen.  So no one game playoff in the NL, but hey, 102 wins!  And the Braves (and their 231 fans) will forever second guess themselves as they blew (or choked away) a 10.5 game lead for the NL Wild Card.  Good times!

The National League picture was settled, and the AL games were rolling toward midnight and the Yanks-Rays game went to the 12th inning and Scott Proctor was beginning his fourth inning of relief (he came in during the 9th), as he was the only pitcher the Yankees had left in the game.  

Boston had Jonathan Papelbon up and in to save it for Boston, who was still nursing their 3-2 lead.  Two quick strikeouts and the Sox were looking at the very least to play another day. Then the defecation hit the oscillation.  A Davis double followed by a Reimold double tied up the game, and then Robert Andino hit a liner that Carl Crawford couldn't hand, and just like that, Papelbon became Papel-suck and the Sox were absolute toast.  4-3 losers as the O's acted like they won the World Series celebrated on the field.  And Bill Simmons cried.

But the story wasn't over yet - just three minutes or so later, Evan Longoria blasted a mirror image homer to win the game for Tampa in the bottom of the 12th - my reaction in talking to Dustin here...

Just the second time in MLB history has a player hit a walkoff homer to send his team to the postseason in the final game - Bobby Thomson was the other.  I didn't know whether to be amused or disgusted by how fast the PLAYOFFS! hats came out for the Rays.  I don't think Longoria had actually crossed the plate yet and Joe Maddon already had an official playoff hat.  

Three teams.  All of which were down to their final at bat managed to affect a pennant race in a manner that was unfathomable to me even two weeks, or even one week ago.  This is the beauty of baseball.  No other sport can you have that sort of comeback while down to a final strike and have all the tables turned in one fell swoop.  In other sports, when you get to the equivalent of an 0-2 count with two outs, you take a knee, or you dribble out the clock.  Never forget, you have to get that last out, that last strike.  Victory or defeat depends on it.  It is not for the faint of heart or those with weak stomachs.  I can't tell you how much I enjoyed last night.  While I was disappointed with no extra games, it turned into massive anti-Brave and anti-Red Sox schadenfreude.

Thank you baseball, for giving us something that no one else can.

Also like to thank Dustin and Ryan for their entertaining conversation and for their perseverance in flipping between three games as well.  Excellent work!

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