If Frank Capra were alive today, even he wouldn’t make a movie about the 2011 Tampa Bay Rays. No one would believe it. Too hokey. Too unlikely. Especially the manic final week and the enchanted final game Wednesday which saw the Rays come back from 7-0 in the eighth to beat the New York Yankees 8-7 in twelve, thereby making it to the playoffs as the American League wild card team.
A no-name hitter for the under-dog team going yard with two outs and two strikes on him in the bottom of the ninth to tie the critical game makes part of the denouement of some deservedly forgettable baseball movies. But this happened in real time Wednesday night at the Trop, and few Rays fans will ever forget it.
For seven innings the Rays were as flat as Calista Flockhart. Only three hits in seven innings, a couple of the scratch variety. The Yankees, baseball’s overdogs, were having their way with the Rays 7-0, chasing one of their stud pitchers, David Price, after just four shell-shocked innings and 97 mostly ineffective pitches, two of which Mark Teixeira converted into souvenirs. Then things turned on a rosin bag.
With a couple of manufactured runs followed by a three-run pop by Evan Longoria in the eighth, the Rays were back in it 7-6, and the people who had left early and had the game on their car radios were starting to drive into Tampa Bay as a procession of Rays crossed the plate. Then came the most unlikely cut of all.
With two outs and no one on in the bottom of the ninth, Rays manager Joe Maddon sent Dan Johnson to pinch hit. Johnson is a slugger who had spent most of the season at AAA Durham. For his Major League time this year Johnson not only had not hit his weight, he had not hit Mary Lou Retton’s Olympic weight. Under his name on the scoreboard flashed an embarrassing .108.
The early departures, now arriving home, were beginning to feel better about their decision. Then with the count at 2-2, Yankee pitcher Corey Wade got one too close to Johnson’s wheel-house, and Dan hit a laser barely fair and barely into the right field seats for the tie. Wide-spread psychotic breaks among the faithful still at the Trop. They absolutely levitated three innings later when another laser, this time off the bat of Longoria, made in barely fair and barely into the left field seats for the winner.
Longoria’s winner came just minutes after the news had flashed in the Trop that the Red Sox had lost to the Orioles, the second shoe that had to drop for the Rays to be in the playoffs. The usually lights-out, uber-closer Jonathon Papelbon, in to protect a 3-2 Sawks lead in the ninth, had blown the save, the game, the night, and by this declension the season, for the snake-bit Sawks.
The unconfined joy at the Trop was only matched by a gloom solidifying across New England as the region’s favorites had just put paid to the biggest infarct in Sawks history. A team with a history of late season el foldos had gone 7-20 in September. Suddenly it was 1978 again (without the leisure suits, thank God). Bucky #$%^&#! Dent, call your office.
From south of Providence to north of Caribou, it’s going to be a l-o-n-g off-season. (And beyond — Red Sox Nation is real enough. I’m convinced that if the Sawks played an exhibition game on Mars, little green guys with three legs and four eyes would come to the park and yell, “Yook!”)
The Rays trailed by 9½ games in the wild car race on September 2. No team in MLB history had come from this far behind in September to make the postseason. All the more remarkable as the small-market Rays player payroll, one of the lowest in the bigs, puts them on poverty row compared to the Sawks, whose payroll exceeds the value of all the property east of the Mississippi. It takes a Cray super-computer to even estimate the Yankees’ payroll. The Rays entire payroll is a Yankees rounding error. If there were stats for results per payroll dollar expended, the Rays would lap both leagues. When the Rays won the 2008 American League Pennant they had the lowest payroll in the AL.
This one is not just a victory for the Rays and a buzz for Bay Area sport fans. It’s a victory for baseball. You can’t write scripts like this. This is a man bites dog story, and one of the things that makes late season baseball so magical.
Before the season started the Sawks were supposed to take it all. They surely had the horses to do it with. The Rays, on the other hand, had lost their entire bullpen, a dependable starter, and three of their key position players because of what Rays’ owners said was a required salary dump. But the Rays’ minor league system keeps producing outstanding young talent for a team that can’t afford pricey free agents. The young bloods and the remaining Rays veterans put together a team strong in pitching and defense, and with just enough hitting to remain in the hunt after 162.
We’ll have to see what the post-season brings. The Rays strap on the Texas Rangers Friday, hardly a bunch of cream-puffs. So it doesn’t get any easier. But the Rays will enter the playoffs this year with momentum. Last year they stumbled in, only to be eliminated by the Rangers 3-2 in the first round. But Rays fans are optimistic, and have hopes that some of the players they’ve come to know will shine on the national stage.
Another of baseball’s charms is that post-season ball has produced so many unlikely stars. Guys, many of whom had short major league careers before turning to used car sales or bartending, but whom baseball aficionados fondly remember. Mention names like Al Weiss, Sandy Amoros, Ron Swoboda, Gene Tenace, or Mickey Hatcher in a sports bar, and the conversation will flow along with the suds. Perhaps guys like Elliot Johnson, Sam Fuld, or Sean Rodriguez can break into this fraternity.
The playoffs start Friday. I’ll be manning my couch, and won’t be taking calls after first pitch.