“On the 2-2 pitch, Longoria, line drive, left field, home run! The Rays win! The Rays have won the AL Wild Card!”
Already dubbed “Wild Wednesday,” Sept. 28 will go down as a legendary day in Major League Baseball. While most marginally attached sports fans would agree that it was a good day to have mlb.tv, Wild Wednesday proved how exciting a normal day of baseball can be if you pay attention to the little things.
For the majority of the season, the AL East was a two-dog race. The grossly over-salaried and over-publicized New York Yankees were duking it out with the similarly over-hyped Boston Red Sox for the division title. The winner would get an automatic bid to the playoffs and the loser would still likely get the AL Wild Card. Over in the NL, the Phillies had long been a lock for the NL East, and the Atlanta Braves had a significant lead in the wild card race (disappointing the majority of Pomona students who have been Giants fans since last October).
But as the clock struck midnight, ringing in the dawn of September, the baseball gods had a 180-degree reversal of fortune. The Red Sox and Braves went from being the nothing-can-go-wrong teams to the everything-that-can-will-go-wrong teams; from anemic hitting to defensive mistakes to blown saves, it was a September collapse. But while these two teams struggled, the Tampa Bay Rays and St. Louis Cardinals put together September records of 16-10 and 17-8 respectively, to vault themselves back into the playoff picture.
And then it all came down to Wild Wednesday. As the national anthem blasted through the ballpark speakers, the Rays and Red Sox each sat at 90-71. The Cardinals and Braves were tangled at 89-72. If either Wild Card Race ended in a tie, with both teams winning or both teams losing, there would be a one game “play-in” between the two teams to settle the score and finalize the playoff situation.
The Cardinals didn’t have a problem handling the Houston Astros, and set their sights where their fate lied, on the Phillies-Braves game. Atlanta carried a lead into the ninth inning, all but assuring a play-in game until standout closer and Rookie of the Year candidate Craig Kimbrel blew the save, sending the game into extra innings. It was the luckiest of hits, a broken bat bloop of an infield single by Hunter Pence in the top of the 13th inning, that proved to be the difference between the two teams and secured the playoff spot for the Cardinals.
If that smelled a bit wild, the Rays’ Wild Wednesday reeked. Down 7-0 to the Yankees in the bottom of the eighth inning, with Boston winning in Baltimore, the Rays were all but out of a playoff spot. A combination of improbable feats led to six runs across the plate. With two outs and two strikes in the bottom of the ninth inning, literally the last possible moment the Rays had to make something happen, Dan Johnson hit a line drive into the seats that tied the game. Three innings later, Evan Longoria would hit his second home run of the night to cap the Rays’ unbelievable comeback and send them into the playoffs after a ninth inning collapse that left Boston on the bad end of a 5-4 walk-off.
Those two hours of baseball were indeed wild. And crazy, and insane, and unbelievable, and a maybe just a bit magical. But that pretty much goes without saying. So why can’t every day of professional baseball be as exciting as Wild Wednesday?
Well, just as Wild Wednesday is to the entire season, Longoria’s walk-off home run is to the entire Rays-Yankees game that night. Understanding and caring about the stories that build up to the climax in a game make the entire game interesting. Taking that formula and applying it to all 162 games, it’s paying attention to the little things in baseball all season long that makes each and every day “wild.”
David Price, long considered the ace of the Rays, had a horrible start to that game, giving up five earned runs on six hits and three walks. This marked the second time all year that he failed to go more than four innings in a pitching start, making it easily his worst performance this year on one of the biggest nights of his career.
All-Star Ace Performance? Absolutely not.
Good story to watch? Definitely.
The Yankees handed the ball to number two pitcher Dellin Betances for a chance to be baptized by fire. They only let him go two innings, and in that time brought on an onslaught of relievers including starters Phil Hughes and A..J Burnett. All in all, the Yankees brought in 11 pitchers in that game, including three starters.
Too many calls to the bullpen? Probably.
The most overlooked play in the game sent it into extra innings. With two outs in the bottom of the ninth, Rays manager Joe Maddon called on Dan Johnson to pinch hit. Johnson, who spent most of the season in AAA, was one of the biggest disappointments this year for the team. Riding into that game with one major league homer in all of 2011, he hit a two-strike pitch over the fence to do the improbable: give the Rays a chance at the wild card.
Clutch Performance? Without a doubt.
Before that last pitch, the experts at Fangraphs determined the Rays had a two percent chance at winning. If you combine that with the three-tenths percent chance on Sept. 3 that Boston would miss the playoffs, the three-tenths percent chance the Rays would come back to win on Wednesday down 7-0 in the 8th, and the two percent chance that Boston would lose their game on Wednesday with the Orioles down to their last strike, there was only a one in 278 million chance that the Rays would win the Wild Card.
Lottery tickets for Joe Madden? No question.