It was the night of Wednesday, September 28, 2011. It was an important night, at least in my eyes. That night, the Tampa Bay Rays were playing the New York Yankees at Tropicana Field. It was the final game of the regular season for both teams. But it was far more important for the Rays as its result would determine the team’s future. If they won and Boston lost, the Rays would claim the American League wild card and a postseason berth. If they lost and Boston won, their season was over. A similar result in their game and Boston’s game meant a one-game playoff the following day to determine the wild card winner since the two teams had the same record.
Just a few innings into the game, the Rays trailed by what seemed like an insurmountable lead. It was 7-0 after Rays starter David Price struggled to one of the worst outings of his career. Meantime, the Red Sox had grabbed a 3-2 lead in Baltimore and were in the middle of a rain delay.
For some reason, I kept the Rays game on TV in the background. At the very least, I wanted to see how their season would end, thinking this would be the final day of it. At that point, I was glad I had turned down a friend’s offer to go since it was getting worse and worse.
Then something started happening in the eighth inning. The Rays started putting men on base. They started scoring some runs – just a few – to make the scoreboard operator do something. But when Evan Longoria stepped up to the plate and belted a pitch to left field, I knew the Rays were not done. You could just feel something special after listening to TV broadcaster Dewayne Staats call the three-run homer, which made it 7-6. Tampa Bay was a run away from tying the game after only collecting a pair of hits in the first seven innings.
Then came the ninth inning. Dan Johnson, who had struggled just to stay in the majors all season long, was at the plate for the Rays with two outs and no one on base. He was a strike away from ending what appeared to be an amazing comeback if he had swung and missed the next pitch. But he didn’t. He made solid contact and hit a ball that barely got over the right field wall to tie the game at seven. How in the world was this happening?
Fast-forward to extra innings when the Rays were batting in the 12th inning. The game was still knotted at seven. In Baltimore, the Orioles were threatening to tie the game against Boston closer Jonathan Papelbon. Before I could flip over to ESPN from Sun Sports, the O’s had tied it at three. Then, somehow, some way, Robert Andino drove in the winning run with former Rays leftfielder Carl Crawford diving to make a play but coming up short.
Since Baltimore had taken care of business and knocked off the Red Sox, the Rays were on the verge of history. In mere minutes after the other game had ended, Evan Longoria launched a pitch to left field and, somehow, some way, it left the yard and landed in the blue outfield seats, sending the Rays to an improbable comeback in their game and a trip to the playoffs that nobody could have ever imagined. If only I had been there.
I may be young, but I can’t imagine ever witnessing such dramatics in sports for the rest of my life. I also got to share the moment with my brother on the phone. He had called me no more than 30 seconds before Longoria’s game-winning blast to find out if I was watching. Fortunately I was. He had taken a nap when it was 7-0 and later awakened to see a tied ballgame. We both screamed and laughed when it was all said and done, finding it hard to believe what we had seen occur. A team with one of the lowest payrolls was in the playoffs. A team with one of the highest was not.
Timing is everything in life, and it was totally proven on this night.