Bill Plaschke: Baseball has its greatest regular-season finish
It gurgled with drama and popped with passion and when it ended, folks were wiping the steam from their eyes and wondering, really, truly, did that just happen?
The last night of the 2011 baseball regular season Wednesday may have been the greatest single night of any baseball regular season. It was two playoff wild-card spots won in final at-bats that cemented the two greatest collapses in baseball history. It was one of those spots won and lost by two separate teams in two separate games in a span of three minutes.
It was a night of gasping and groaning and frantic texting and nutty tweeting and shouting out loud in front of giant televisions all across America. It was a night filled with the sort of riveting emotion that only baseball at its best can still provide and when it ended, Evan Longoria, home-run hitting hero of the playoff-bound Tampa Bay Rays, stood dazed in front of a camera and spoke about the perfect storm that encapsulated an ancient culture.
"It was like we were out there for five hours ... then everything happened in a matter of seconds," he said.
How did it end? How do we start?
It was one of baseball’s most historically choking franchises gagging again, in the ninth inning, with two out and nobody on base and their veteran closer protecting a one-run lead against the Baltimore Orioles. The Boston Red Sox were 77-0 in those situations this season before Wednesday, then Jonathan Papelbon lost it and Carl Crawford blew it and the whole lot of them crumbled into history.
Three minutes later and about 1,000 miles away -- yeah, just three minutes -- it was one of baseball’s most delightful franchises stunning again, overcoming a 7-0 deficit to the best team in baseball. The Tampa Bay Rays tied the New York Yankees with a two-strike, two-out homer in the ninth by a guy who had not hit one in five months -- Dan Johnson, I believe -- then they won three innings later and danced into October.
Wait. It was more. It was much more. It was screaming-in-the-dugout, hands-buried-in-faces more.
In the other league, it was a young and exhausted Atlanta Braves team finishing baseball’s second-biggest collapse by also blowing not only an 8 ½-game wild-card lead in September, but completing the dive by blowing a one-run lead in the ninth inning to the Philadelphia Phillies with star rookie Craig Kimbrel on the mound. The game was so overwhelming for the young Braves, their veteran Chipper Jones actually gave them a football-style pep talk in the dugout before the game. He then grew even grayer watching them run themselves out of big innings and pitch their way into a long winter.
Finally, earlier in the night, about 800 miles away, it was the St. Louis Cardinals racking up their biggest first inning of the season with five runs that pushed them into the sneakiest October entry in recent memory. I thought Tony LaRussa had retired. I thought Albert Pujols had left town. How do they keep doing it?
"It’s going to take us a while to get over this one," said the Braves’ Dan Uggla, and yes, he’s right, for many reasons, for all of us.
The biggest loser of the night was, of course, the Red Sox, who blew a nine-game wild-card lead in September, the biggest loss of a playoff spot in history. The Sox have baseball’s third-highest payroll, yet all that money couldn’t stop David Ortiz and Marco Scutaro from baserunning blunders, all that money couldn’t stop what might have been the most perfectly awful ending, last winter’s free-agent monster Crawford failing on a diving catch that allowed the winning run to score.
The biggest winner of the night was, of course, baseball, and particularly Commissioner Bud Selig. For all the controversy surrounding his job, one can never question his love for the purest parts of his game, and the results of that affection translated into beauty.
It was Selig who came up with the idea of adding a wild-card team to the playoffs in 1995. If there was no wild card, there would have been no chilling Wednesday.
It was also under Selig that this year, for the first time, the baseball season ended in the middle of the week, and how great was that? Can you imagine if Wednesday’s drama had occurred on an NFL Sunday like usual? How much of it would have been tackled under highlights of Tom Brady and the Green Bay Packers and your fantasy team?
For several shining hours Wednesday, alone on the national stage and in our fondest memories, baseball briefly stole the sports world back from football, momentarily reclaimed its grip as the national pastime, America once again entranced and enchanted and taken out to the old ballgame.
-- Bill Plaschke
Photo: The Tampa Bay Rays swarm Evan Longoria. Credit: Brian Blanco / EPA