Six Hours in September
Blown saves, walk-offs, historic comebacks. On one historic day in September of 2011, the final day of the regular season, four teams fought to fit into two playoff spots, reminding all of us that nothing is truly over until the public address announcer is wishing you a safe drive home.
September 28, 2011 is a date fans of some teams have tattooed on their forearms and that fans of others have tried to erase from their memory all together. To understand the magnitude of 2011’s Game 162, it’s worth looking back at the incredible comebacks that even made this day possible. In the National League, the Cardinals had grinded their way back in only a month’s time from a 10.5 game deficit to the Braves in the Wild Card standings. A team that was once expected to deal their star, Lance Berkman at the deadline was now firmly in position to fight their way to October. A win by St. Louis and a loss by Atlanta would be the winning combination for the Cardinals. On the other side of the league, a similar narrative had emerged. The Rays entered September facing a 7.5 game deficit behind the Boston Red Sox. A surprising collapse from Boston and a late-season surge by Tampa left the two teams tied with one game left to go in the season.
St. Louis Cardinals at Houston Astros
St. Louis had a lucky choice of opposition in the first game of the night. Before the Astros started having 100-win seasons, they were having 106-loss seasons. Houston was bad, St. Louis was good, and what happened reflected that. On the backs of a five-run first inning and 11 strikeouts from Chris Carpenter, St. Louis took care of the Astros easily. The champagne ski goggles couldn’t get put on yet though, as the Cardinals turned their attention to the clubhouse TVs as they hoped for a miracle in Atlanta.
Philadelphia Phillies at Atlanta Braves
Tied with St. Louis for the NL Wild Card spot, Atlanta needed a Game 162 win to keep their once-bright postseason hopes alive. They would face the NL East champion Phillies, who had the best record in all of baseball at 101-60. Dan Uggla shot the Braves out front in the third with a two-run shot that pushed the score to 3-1. Atlanta’s two-run lead was intact in the ninth, when rookie closer Craig Kimbrel came in looking for his MLB-leading 47th save. Of course, stats don’t matter when you’re staring down the deadliest lineup in the league, and the Phillies helped Atlanta remember that. Philadelphia evened the game up in the ninth, and after three scoreless extra innings, hammered in the final nail in Atlanta’s coffin. The stadium was so silent that night, you could hear a champagne cork pop in a St. Louis’ locker room 500 miles away.
Boston Red Sox at Baltimore Orioles
In the American League, things were looking less bright for the underdog challenger. The Red Sox, despite their historic collapse, were in good position to hold on to their postseason position. They were facing the Orioles, who were seated firmly in the back of the AL East with 90 losses on the season, while the Rays had to match up against the 97-win Yankees. The game turned out to be closer than it should’ve been, with the Red Sox holding on to a 3-2 lead heading into the ninth. Maybe it was something in the air that night, but All-Star closers were not having a good night. Jonathan Papelbon was unable to close out the game, and the Orioles walked off Boston, throwing some sprinkles on the cake that was the Red Sox collapse.
New York Yankees at Tampa Bay Rays
As unpredictable as the night had been already, every game leading up to this one were merely undercards. Our story’s climax would occur under the roof of Tropicana Field mere minutes after Boston’s demise. The Ray’s path through Game 162 was an uphill battle, but that was the story of the season already. They had to find a way through a powerhouse Yankees squad, and entering the fifth, it was starting to look like that wasn’t going to happen. Tampa was facing a 7-0 deficit entering the back half of the game. At the same time, the Red Sox were leading the Orioles. A Longoria-led comeback breathed new life into the Rays, who managed to force extras against New York. As the bottom of the twelfth inning arrived, so did news of Boston’s collapse. Minutes later, Evan Longoria called game, tucking a line drive over the left field wall and catapulting Tampa into a frenzy. What a night.