Recalling Rarity

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It is September 28th, 2011, the final day of the 2011 regular season for all 30 ballclubs. For the Tampa Bay Rays, they sit at a record of 90-71 and host the New York Yankees (97-64) this evening at Tropicana Field. About a month ago, not many would have thought this game would mean much for the Rays. Now, it’s one of the most critical games in their short, thirteen-year history.

The Rays entered September nine and half games back in the Wild Card race behind the Boston Red Sox. However, as September got underway the Rays began to play their best baseball all season long while the Red Sox began to falter. Tampa even won six of its final seven games against Boston to pull closer. Finally, the Rays caught them on September 26th. Both teams won their respective games yesterday. Now, each team seeks to win tonight to earn a spot in the postseason or at least live to see a tiebreaking game against one another tomorrow.

For the Rays, the organization was born in 1998. Tampa Bay was awarded with a pro team based upon Florida being a popular destination for baseball when Spring Training was underway. Major League Baseball decided Tampa Bay and Miami had needed teams of their own. However, the welcome and support hasn’t really been there for this organization. First known and born as the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, owner Stuart Sternberg had decided to drop “Devil” from its name and replaced the team colors from green and black to navy blue and light blue in 2008. The Devil Rays had been finishing in the basement of the American League East constantly through its first ten seasons in existence. Sternberg felt the need for a new beginning and a new identity, but still electing to keep part of its DNA. Sure enough, the Rays then went on to go to the World Series in ’08 and claim another division title in 2010.

And so here the Rays were looking to reach the postseason for the third time in four seasons. However, experts gave the Rays no chance in the preseason given that its rivals, Boston and New York, made headline splashes in free agency to bolster its rosters. According to ESPN’s 2011 Baseball Payroll list, The New York Yankees had a payroll of $201,689,030 (highest in MLB) and the Boston Red Sox had a payroll of $161,407,476 (3rd highest in MLB). Meanwhile, Tampa Bay had a payroll of $41,932,171. That is the 2nd lowest payroll in all of baseball just ahead of the Kansas City Royals. It is about every season that teams like the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers, Angels, Giants, Cubs, Phillies, etc. have a seemingly higher advantage to win due to the larger markets they are in and can afford to bid the highest dollar amounts to the best players when they become available in free agency.

There seemed to be major pressure on the Red Sox to win their game against the Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yards given their massive payroll, but the Rays were looking to defy the odds. As both games got underway, the Rays quickly fell behind 1-0 and then watched Mark Teixeara hit a grand slam for the Yankees to put them in a 5-0 hole in just the 3rd inning. A couple of innings later, and the Yankees continued to mash with back-to-back homers to make it 7-0 in the 5th inning. Every Tampa Bay fan had soon been thinking that this team gave a remarkable effort in the final month, but their run was coming to a devastating end, as long as Boston took care of its business against Baltimore.

“It’s 7-0 and I’m thinking to myself, ‘save the bullpen. Save the bullpen. Red Sox please lose,’” said Joe Maddon, manager of the Rays.

Up in Baltimore, the Red Sox had been loving the score they were seeing up on the scoreboard for the Yankees-Rays game. With a 3-2 lead late in the game, the Red Sox felt like everything was in their hands. All they really had to do was hold their lead and barring a Tampa miracle, they would survive their catastrophic September and go to the playoffs.

However, things got very interesting when it began to rain at Camden Yards. Hence, the Red Sox-Orioles game had to go into a rain delay. The Red Sox would have to go into the clubhouse and wait for the rain to stop. With this game now paused for the moment, all attention was back on the Yankees-Rays game to ensure New York would cash-in its late and large lead over Tampa entering the bottom of the 8th inning.

“I think the Rays are not going to win tonight,” said Dan Shaugnessy, a sports writer for the Boston Globe who has been covering the Red Sox for many years. “I think the one thing we have eliminated tonight is the Red Sox season is not going to end tonight… You’ve gotta hang on to this 3-2 lead, but the Rays aren’t going to comeback from 7-0 with an inning and a half to play.”

Trailing 7-0 with 6 outs to play with, Tampa was looking for some life. Any life. They would get it. Tampa loaded the bases with nobody out and would score three times on a bases loaded walk, a hit-by-pitch with the bases loaded, and a sacrifice fly to make it 7-3.

Still with two men on and two men out, the Rays needed their star third baseman to deliver a big hit to keep the inning alive. Then, Evan Longoria launched a three-run homer into left-center field. All the sudden, it was 7-6. A one-run ballgame. Tropicana Field was back to being as loud as when the game began.

The Rays got the shut-down inning they needed in the top-half of the ninth to keep the Yankees only ahead by a run. But in the bottom half of the inning, the Yankees quickly put away the Rays first two batters. The Rays were down to their last gasp of breath. Despite putting up six runs in the previous inning, it seemed as if their valiant effort would fall short and they would have to rely on the little hope of Boston losing its game.

The Rays sent pinch-hitter Dan Johnson to the plate hoping that he would knot the game up with one swing. Johnson, a guy who possesses a little pop when he connects, was batting with an average of just .119 in the majors this season, according to MLB.com. Everybody in the ballpark knew he was up to the plate simply with the mindset of hitting the ball out to souvenir city.

“Guys were deflated,” said Sam Fuld, outfielder for the Rays. “Down to our last strike. Hanging over the rail, just hoping something would happen. Just one swing of the bat changed it.”

With two strikes on him, Johnson received an inside fastball on the inside part of the plate and pulled it sharply down the right-field line. The ball continued to sail toward the right-field foul pole and banked off it. Home-run. Tie Game. Yankees 7 – Rays 7. The game would head to extra innings.

Finally, rain had stopped and baseball was ready to resume play back in Baltimore. For the Red Sox, they now had a completely different feeling in their stomach getting back on the field versus how they left it. They were very eager to add on to their slim lead, but failed to do so. As if it was fate, they bounced into a double play with the bases loaded and got thrown out at the plate in the eighth and ninth innings to keep the score at 3-2. Still, the Red Sox were 77-0 this season when leading after eight innings.

The bottom of the ninth rolled in and closer Jonathan Papelbon struck out the first two batters he faced. The Red sox had gotten 26 outs. They needed one more to at least live to see another day. At the exact same time, the Rays kept the Yankees off the board in the top of the 12th inning, giving them another chance to walk-off with a win in the bottom half.

Papelbon couldn’t close the door for Boston, though. He surrendered back-to-back doubles to Chris Davis and Nolan Reimold to make it a 3-3 tie. The next hitter, Robert Andino, hit a sinking line drive to left-field that dropped in just in front of the left-fielder. The winning run, Reimold, would score from second base and the O’s stunned the Red Sox 4-3. The Red Sox now needed the Yankees to beat the Rays and force a tiebreaker tomorrow night.

Of course, news broke quickly in the Trop that the Red Sox had just lost to the Orioles. Fans all over Tropicana Field were cheering with joy and yelling with hope that the Rays could finish off their remarkable run. Once again, their star third baseman Longoria was up to the plate and once again he delivered. He drilled a fastball down the left-field line and it hooked just inside the left-field foul pole for a walk-off solo home-run. He had just sent the Rays to the playoffs. In 12 innings, they beat the Yankees 8-7.

Pandemonium. It was a celebration that was massively spontaneous four weeks prior. The Rays had erased the largest deficit of 9.5 games behind a playoff spot entering September in MLB history. A mark that still holds today.

“It was one of the most memorable times being a part of the organization,” said Dave Haller, Senior Director in Communications for the Rays. “Each day we got closer and closer and all of the sudden you started to realize something special just might be unfolding. Then, on the final day (of the regular season) it was quite astonishing what unfolded. When I walked into work the next day it was all smiles in the office.”

The Rays bench celebrates as Dan Johnson delivers a game-tying home run after the Rays were a strike away from defeat. Photo taken by The New York Times.

Jonathan Papelbon pitches to Robert Andino as he tries to record the final out of the inning and send the game to extras after blowing a save opportunity. Photo taken by Grant Brisbee of SBNation.

The Rays mob Evan Longoria moments after he hits a walk-off home run off to clinch the Wild Card for the Rays, minutes after Baltimore defeated Boston. Photo taken by Jeff Sullivan of SBNation.