Only in Sports

Stunning?  Surreal?  Preposterous?

No words can adequately describe the wildness on the last day of Major League Baseball’s 2011 regular season in the American League.

The turn of events were so insane that the historic collapse by the Atlanta Braves in the National League was an afterthought.  The Braves capped their own collapse from an 8 ½ game September lead also in style, blowing a lead in the ninth inning.  No team in history had ever blown an eight game lead for a playoff spot in September before.

In one day, we got two.

The story of the Rays, the Red Sox, and the Yankees illustrates why sports is so great, because you couldn’t make up a more ridiculously unplausible plot development.

Nothing so preposterous can happen in real life.  Yet sports is real.

The night had all the right characters to set up the drama.

The Red Sox, a favorite pre-season pick to win it all, was 7-18 in September going into the game, hadn’t won two in a row since August and blew a nine game lead in the wildcard, but still controlled their own destiny because a tie with the Rays would force a one-game playoff.  If they won all of their remaining games, they’re in.

The scrappy Rays, who played .666 baseball against the Red Sox but only.549 against everyone else, was closing out the season against the Yankees, against whom the Rays were only 8-9 going in but had won two in a row.

And then there are the Yankees, who had gone only 12-6 against the Sox all season, including 1-8 earlier in the season to let the Red Sox crawl back out from their 2-10 start, but had taken two out of three only a couple days earlier to screw the Red Sox.

Only in sports can things get so perverse that not only are Sox fans rooting for the Yankees, but Yankee fans are rooting against their own team to spite their hated rival.

Then there was the plot, which started out as if to mock the notion of a Cinderella story with a harsh reality.  The Sox got the lead behind quality pitching from a beaten-up starter working on three days rest for the first time in his career.  Meanwhile, the Yankees jump to a 7-0 lead despite a rookie making his first start and the Rays starting an All-Star.

And then comes the rain delay in Baltimore, precisely timed so the Red Sox can observe the Rays rally for six runs in the eighth.  The sports gods were particularly cruel last night, giving Sox nation hope by having the Rays strand the tying run on second in the eighth, have the first two batters go in order in the ninth and have the third batter, a pinch hitter batting half of the Mendoza line, go to two strikes.

Then Dan Johnson hit a home run to tie the game as the rain stopped in Baltimore.

Around this time, Sox fans must have begun to suspect that the sports gods were toying with them, setting the stage for the most horrifying, cruel fate after seemingly ensuring at least a one game playoff for the Sox.  Consider:

–  Red Sox kept on hammering away hits but could never push the runners across, keeping the Orioles close

–  Yankee pitchers were only going between two to three innings each, gradually emptying the bullpen

–  Yankee lineup was increasingly looking like a AAA lineup as starters sit in an irrelevant game (for them)

Meanwhile in Tampa, Scott Proctor was buying the wrath of Yankee fans because he was doing his job.   The man who brought back nothing but terrible memories from his first stint with the Yankees when he returned in mid-season, the man who promptly gave up a three run home run in the 14th inning to the Red Sox only a couple days before, the man who was brought into this final game of the season because he could be relied upon to live down to expectations, was shutting down the Rays.

As Jonathan Papelbon was cruising to what seemed like a one-two-three save, the Rays were in serious trouble in the top of the 12th as the Yankees had two on and no one out.

It seemed like the Sox were headed to the playoffs, free and clear, able to put the horrible September behind them.

Then the sports gods stepped in and brought on the tragedy that not even the Greeks could conjure up.

In Tampa, the Rays wiggled out of trouble with a clutch double play.

In Baltimore, with two outs and no one on, Papelbon gave up a double, a double and a single to allow two runs and lose the game.  It was the first time in 78 games that the Sox lost the lead in the ninth.

Only minutes later, in Tampa, Evan Langoria blasted a home run off of Proctor, capping a comeback from a deficit so big the Yankees had coughed up only twice before in its long history.

And just like that, Boston went from being in the playoffs to out, unable to force even a one-game playoff.

The end came so quickly the Red Sox nation was shell-shocked.

And the rest of us couldn’t process the stunning turn of events.

Stuff like this doesn’t happen.

It can’t happen in real life.

It only happens in sports.


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