The Best Night of Baseball in Modern History

September 29, 2011

One Fan Reacts to the Final Day of the 2011 Regular Season

September 28th, 2011, the last of the 2011 baseball season and the most exciting day in the history of the game, yet it was a day that never should have happened in the first place. The Boston Red Sox and the Atlanta Braves had a 9 and 8.5 game lead in their respective races at the beginning of September.  They should have both walked into the playoffs smoking cigars, wearing tuxedos, and carrying champagne bottles. There was no way anyone could blow that kind of a lead in September. It had never happened before. But on September 28th, 2011, it happened.


It started with a couple inconsequential day games. The tension built slowly throughout the day when a batting title was decided, and by nightfall, baseball fans across the country were tracking 4 separate games, 4 epic battles for 2 playoff spots. 3 of those games saw 9th inning leads disappear with 2 outs, 2 games went extra innings and 2 were decided on the last at-bat, mere minutes apart, with the last of these four games ending with a home run that completed an impossible comeback from a 7-run 8th inning deficit.

What made this so amazing was that two teams had started the month of September with easy tickets to the post season were in danger of losing their playoff spots. Both of those teams, Boston and Atlanta, seemed to have scripted, organized and executed their own funerals. And it seemed like every baseball fan in America somehow managed to sit through and capture every simultaneous moment of every excruciatingly tense game.

That’s the best part: all of this shit was happening at the exact same time. Here’s how it all went down…

Both wild cards were in play. Four teams, two playoff spots.  Boston and Tampa were tied in the standings. So were Atlanta and St. Louis. On this fateful day, the Cardinals rolled to an easy 8-0 victory against the Houston Astros and returned to their locker room to find chilled champagne and beer sitting on the table, plastic sheets covering the lockers, ski goggles everywhere, and the Braves on TV. They had done their part now all they could do was wait. Boston was in Baltimore hoping to halt their skid against the last place Orioles. Tampa was playing the American League’s toughest team: the New York Yankees. Atlanta needed to stop Major League Baseball’s top-winning Philadelphia Phillies. Around the league, Texas and Detroit for trying to work out home field advantage in their playoff games while Milwaukee and Arizona sat waiting for their opponents to be decided.

The stage had been set. Everyone knew there was a possibility of 2 one-game playoffs the next day. Imagine a day with two game 163s! Calendars were cleared across the country while baseball fans salivated at the thought of a Friday night sudden-death, do-or-die playoff game. Or maybe two of them. What a great day that would be! Turns out, no 163s were needed. And we’re lucky with that, because nothing will ever top what happened instead.

Boston took an early 1-0 lead in the 3rd inning but then J.J. Hardy jacked his 30th homer of a season, a 2-run shot that put Baltimore up 2-1. It Atlanta, Philly scored in the first inning but Atlanta got it right back before Dan Uggla hit a 2-run bomb to put the Braves up 3-1. Down in Tampa it wasn’t so close. David Price gave up a 2nd inning grand slam to Mark Teixeira giving the Yankees a 5-0 lead. The Yanks would add two more and by the 5th inning, the Rays were down 7-0. Red Sox fans were able to breathe. It looked good so far. Tampa was losing badly which provided insurance against a Boston loss. But if Boston was able to hold on and win, the wild card would be theirs and Tampa’s impossible September surge would be quickly forgotten.

Around the league, Texas locked up home-field advantage in round one with a victory against the Angels. Milwaukee would win its game against Pittsburgh while Arizona was just getting started in their finale vs. the Dodgers. And in Minnesota, the disastrous Twins, a usual playoff presence were able to avoid a 100-loss season with a 9th inning walk-off win against the Royals. Carl Pavano pitched a 5-hit shutout and legendary Twins broadcaster John Gordon signed off for the last time with a heartfelt and emotional “Touch ‘em all, Twins fans!”

But at Tropicana Field, the night was slowly turning from the exciting to the improbable. Try and find a historical precedent for what happened. Just try. Or don’t try. Don’t even bother, because it’s not there. Down 7-0 in the 8th inning, Tampa scored 6 runs capped by an Evan Longoria 3-run shot. Still down by one, they were headed into the top of the 9th inning against a Yankees lineup filled with rookies and backups.

Atlanta and Philly were headed into extra innings after Chase Utley tied with game with a 1-out sac fly in the 9th and in Baltimore, Boston fans at Camden Yards gulped when they saw the scoreboard showed 7-6 Yankees. But it was still 3-2 Boston. Aceves and Bard would each hold serve and Papelbon would be coming out for the 9th to lock up the win. The Sox would head back to their dugout and catch the end of the Yankees-Rays game, and then hopefully head straight to their first playoff game soon after, never needing to worry about a game 163. Two games to decide the AL Wild Card and both were one run affairs in the 9th inning. Baseball fans knew they were watching something special.

No one would have guessed how dramatically it would end. Philadelphia and Atlanta would labor into the 13th inning until and exhausted Braves pitching staff finally ran out of gas and surrendered a single to Hunter Pence. David Hearndon would close it down in the 9th giving Philly their MLB-best 102nd win of the season and sending corks flying across the Cardinal’s locker room in Houston. Atlanta’s epic collapse was complete. The Cardinals would go to the playoffs in their place and Atlanta’s fall would be remembered as one of the greatest in baseball history if not for what was about to happen in the American League.

With two outs in the bottom of the 9th inning, Dan Johnson pinch hit for the Rays. Johnson, with a .108 batting average and 1 home run on the season. And he now had 2 strikes, presenting the Rays with their final pitch of the season. Boston was winning and if the Red Sox held on, Tampa would be eliminated. It was up to Dan Johnson. Bottom of the 9th inning, two outs and down by one, two strikes.

Dan Johnson hit a fucking home run and tied the game. It was one of those improbable baseball stories that makes every fan shake their head with wonder and admiration for a game filled with unfathomable moments. Tropicana Field became a mob scene of frenzied fans. Facebook pages blew up with updates like “no way!” “impossible” and “AMAZING!” while Boston fans sat deflated and unsure of which was worse: the reality of their team’s epic collapse or the fact that they had to root for the Yankees to beat the Rays in extra innings. But right now Sox fans had no choice – they had to root for the Yankees.

With clenched fists and scowld, they looked on as the 10th inning in Tampa was a scoreless affair and the 11th ended with the score still tied 7-7. But in the top of the 12th the Yankees put runners on first and third with no outs. Red Sox fans cringed and choked on their cheers as they rooted for a Yankee base hit, a sacrifice fly, a wild pitch, anything that would put a run across. But a young Yankee named Golson was caught too far from third after a Jorge Posada grounder and the next batter struck out. Then Brett Gardner grounded out to second and with that game still tied 7-7 and going ot the bottom of the 12th, the attention turned to Baltimore where Jonathan Papelbon took the mound in teh 9th with a 3-2 lead.

He struck out the first two batters and Red Sox fans, their fingers crossed with white knuckles and their hair turning gray on the spot, sat tensely whispering “One more…just one more out.” But Chris Davis doubled into the right field corner. Baltimore had life. Hoping for the ultimate spoiler, the Baltimore Orioles players stood along their dugout railing while the Red Sox players waited tensely in the field hoping Papelbon would blow the next batter away so they could all retire to their locker room and watch the outcome of the Rays game.

But Nolan Reimold doubled to right-center, a ground-ruler that bounced into the stands and tied the game. Baltimore was ecstatic. Boston couldn’t believe it. It was about to happen. They were about to blow it – not only this game but an entire season. But if they could just get one more out they could win it in extras. Or perhaps these reluctant Yankee fans would see the Rays lose their game. In that case, even if Boston lost they still had a chance to save their dignity in a one-game playoff the following day. A game that would never happen.

In Tampa, the game was tied in the bottom of the 12th inning. B.J. Upston stuck out and Evan Longoria came to the plate. He had already homered dramatically in the 8th inning rally and now Rays fans took to their feet and cheered when they saw a number on the scoreboard change from a 3 to a 4. An F appeared beside the score and the crowd went wild.

Papelbon had worked Andino into a 1-1 count before the Oriole smacked a sinking line drive to left field. Carl Crawford, the Ray of a year before charged for the ball and slid along the grass with his glove opened and welcoming the ball. The inning was over, the game would remain 3-3 and go to a 10th inning. The Red Sox charged back to their dugout and grabbed their batting helmets and bats and got ready for an extra-inning showdown.

Sadly for Red Sox fans, it was all a dream. A mirage. The Red Sox never charged into their dugout ready for the 10th inning. They didn’t switch from caps to batting helmets or replace their mits with their bats. It was a 10th inning that never happened. Crawford didn’t come up with the ball. He ran, he slid, he reached for it. The ball hit his glove, and then fell out. And as the ball fell to the grass, thousands of Red Sox fans felt their hearts fall with it. The game would be over in seconds. Crawford jumped to his feet and desperately threw the ball to the plate but it was too late. Reimold scored and the Orioles stormed the field like they’d just won the World Series.

Red Sox manager Terry Francona immediately turned and disappeared into the dugout tunnel and Papelbon walked off the field with his head hanging while Baltimore fans yelled wildly all around him. It had become one of baseball’s great spoils, and only because of what happened mere seconds later.

Moments after the scoreboard in Tampa flickered to reveal a 4-3 Baltimore victory, Evan Longoria hit a line drive home run over the left field wall. And just like that it was over.

The Rays rushed the field and before the Boston Red Sox even had time to process their 9th inning  loss to the worst team in their division, they had been eliminated. The mighty Boston Red Sox, the team that some said would rival the 1927 Yankees would not even have time to return to their locker room and decompress before watching the end of the Rays-Yankees game. It was already over. Just like that.

The baseball world went nuts. “You can’t make this up!” said hundreds of Twitter feeds. “AMAZING! SIMPLY AMAZING!” said about 50,000 Facebook posts. Phones rang all over the country with shouts of congratulations and exclamations of outright disgust. Two teams had fallen terribly while two others had completed remarkable, storybook-style comebacks. And all in the span of a few minutes. Never in baseball has so much been decided in such a short period of time and in such dramatic fashion. Amazing, simply amazing. The best night of baseball in modern history, and probably forever. September 28th, 2011. The last day of the 2011 regular season. A day I will never forget.

Watch an amazing highlight reel, with all the action broken down chronologically right here: