That was probably the most incredible, breathtaking night of baseball I've ever seen in my life, and the only preferable ending would have been no ending at all. Think about what we saw tonight:
Atlanta held a 3-1 lead over the Phillies after six innings. The Phillies scored a run on an error in the bottom of the seventh and then Chase Utley tied the game at three with a one-out sacrifice fly in the top of the ninth. The Phillies went ahead in the top of the thirteenth inning on a Hunter Pence RBI single that plated Brian Schneider and won the game, 4-3..
The Red Sox took a 3-2 lead over the Orioles in the fifth inning, and rain delayed the bottom of the seventh by nearly 90 minutes. In the bottom of the ninth, Jonathan Papelbon struck out Adam Jones and Mark Reynolds to quickly bring the Sox to within an out of victory. Chris Davis hit a double to right and Nolan Reimold followed with a game-tying ground-rule double to center. Robert Andino then hit a soft liner to left which narrowly escaped Carl Crawford's glove and Reimold sailed home ahead of the throw to give the Orioles a remarkable 4-3 win.
Mets fans will remember Andino from this game when he was with the Marlins on April 1, 2008, the second game of the season, in which he hit a game-winning home run — the first of his career — in the bottom of the tenth off of Matt Wise.
The Yankees scored a run in the first, four runs in the second, and a run apiece in the fourth and fifth innings to take what appeared to be a commanding 7-0 lead over the Rays. The Rays had just two hits — two singles, one of the infield variety — through seven innings, but they loaded the bases with none out in the bottom of the eighth against Dane De La Rosa. Naturally, Joe Girardi signaled to the bullpen for former Met Luis Ayala. The next five batters:
Sam Fuld walked, Johnny Damon scored.
Sean Rodriguez hit by pitch, Ben Zobrist scored.
Desmond Jennings struck out swinging.
B.J. Upton sacrifice fly, Casey Kotchman scored.
Evan Longoria homered to left, Fuld and Rodriguez (and Longoria!) scored.
The rally narrowed the Rays' deficit to 7-6. Still trailing by that score in the bottom of the ninth, Zobrist flied out to center and Kotchman grounded out to third to put Tampa on the ropes. Dan Johnson was called upon to pinch-hit for Fuld. Dan Johnson had one home run in 2011 before tonight. Dan Johnson's last hit was on April 27. Naturally, Dan Johnson hit a game-tying home run. With two outs. In the bottom of the ninth.
In the bottom of the twelfth, B.J. Upton struck out swinging to lead things off. The scoreboard at Tropicana Field then flashed the final score of the Red Sox game. Longoria stepped to the plate. The Tampa crowd was on tenterhooks. Longoria lined Scott Proctor's 56th pitch of the game into the left field corner. The ball never appeared to reach any higher than maybe ten feet off the ground. It didn't matter, because the ball tucked itself over the short fence and inside the foul pole. Longoria hit his second home run of the game, this one sending the Rays into the postseason for the third time in four years.
Tonight was the stuff of baseball legend, and it would have been a bunch of meaningless games if not for the Wild Card.
On September 3, the Red Sox had 99.6% playoff odds and led the Rays by 9 games in the Wild Card. Like the Mets, the Red Sox will miss the postseason this year.
While Braves and Red Sox fans aren't collectively among my favorite fans in the world, I don't revel in their abject misery over what has transpired over the past month, generally, and over the past twelve hours specifically. We can't reasonably forget that the Mets held a seven-game lead with seventeen to play in 2007 and missed the playoffs altogether. It was heart-breaking then for me just as it must be heart-breaking for Sox and Braves fans right now. I know the emptiness they feel right now. It sucks, and it hurts a lot, but it will get better with time.
What I hate most of all is the word "collapse" which will be reflexively affixed to these Red Sox and Braves teams, just as it was used to paint those 2007 Mets as losers and quitters and as a team that just didn't want it enough. I hate it because that word is loaded in a way that speaks to the character or the will of the team. In these cases, just as with the 2007 Mets, an awful lot of things went wrong through no lack of effort or desire to win on the part of the teams involved. You can keep "choke," too. I don't care for it and I simply won't use it. Again, it needlessly evokes a failure of internal fortitude when the real failure was almost entirely out in the open.
The Sox, and the Braves, and the 2007 Mets had a lot of things go wrong for them down the stretch. There were injuries, bad performances, poor luck, untimely pitching, and, its corollary, a lack of timely hitting. All of that stuff happens to both good teams and bad ones. Great teams are capable of going 5-15 over a stretch. If it happens earlier in the season it's a bump in the road, but transpose it to the tail end of the season and it's a collapse.
However you want to describe it, the 2011 Red Sox and Braves now suffer the ignominy of having gone from near postseason locks to packing it in for the long offseason. Henceforth, any team with a comfortable division or Wild Card lead who happens to falter down the stretch will be unflatteringly compared to these guys. They both stunk in September and they have to live with it, and our consolation as Mets fans is that the Red Sox and the Braves become the poster children for what can happen when great seasons go horribly wrong in the end. That is, until some other team comes along to remind us that bad things can afflict good teams.
Good things can afflict bad teams, too, which reminds me of one other thing happened on Wednesday: Jose Reyes became the first Met to ever win a batting title. Batting average's reputation has taken a hit in recent years, and for good reason, but there's still something special about being the batting champ. Put it in the books:
Jose Reyes, 2011: .337.