Recalling one of most dramatic days in MLB history

Final day of 2011 season marked by remarkable comebacks, special moments

Recalling one of most dramatic days in MLB history

Look around Tropicana Field in 2016, and you'll see a shrine to the history of a franchise whose memorable moments you can count on one hand. There's the 2008 American League Championship Series and the Matt Garza no-hitter in '10. Wade Boggs crushing his 3,000th hit into the right-field seats. There's 13 losing seasons in 18 years that have come and been forgotten, too.

Then there's the one moment in 2011 that no one could have hoped for, because doing so would have gone beyond the scope of optimism.

On the last day of the regular season, the Rays and Red Sox were tied for the lone AL Wild Card spot. Tampa Bay had closed a 9 1/2-game deficit since the start of September. But that comeback seemed doomed to fade as Tampa Bay fell behind 7-0 to the Yankees on the season's final day, and Boston held onto a lead over last-place Baltimore. In the National League the Cardinals completed an 8 1/2-game September comeback with an 8-0 win over the Astros and a 4-3, 13-inning Braves loss to the Phillies.

In the left-field short porch is the 162 Landing exhibit. In the team's elevators is a photo of Evan Longoria's arms raised high in the air, only a trip around the bases away from officially landing the Rays in the postseason. Tangible reminders to those who saw it happen, nothing short of a miracle.

Five years later, here's an oral history of the most improbable comeback in baseball history, and the most improbable night in baseball history, told by the people who lived it.

Part 1: "Well, you had a good run at it. You gave it your best."

Three scenarios existed entering the night. The Rays lose and the Red Sox win, thus ending Tampa Bay's season. They both lose or both win, resulting in a one-game tiebreaker. Or the Rays could clinch the playoffs with a win and a Boston loss.

The Rays allowed a first-inning run on a two-out error by second baseman Ben Zobrist. Mark Teixeira followed that with a grand slam in the second inning and a solo shot in the fourth inning to make it 6-0. The Rays scratched out only two hits in the first seven innings.

Teixeira's grand slam

Tampa Bay had its chances, though. Two runners on in the first inning. One runner in the second and third. Two more in the fourth, and four total baserunners in the fifth, sixth and seventh combined. Nothing to show for it.

Dan Johnson, Rays pinch-hitter: "Everything was real light. [Rays manager] Joe [Maddon] was clear about getting everyone into that belief. 'So what? It's just another baseball game. Let's get a win.' That type of mentality. I don't think anyone was pressing that much."

Marc Topkin, Tampa Bay Times beat reporter: "He relished those moments. I think Joe relished the chance to say, 'All is good, all is calm,' to set that tone. Whenever Joe Maddon talked to the media, he viewed it was having a team meeting. Because he knew that feeling, that attitude would carry out into the clubhouse. I don't think he treated it any differently, and thus I don't think players wanted to treat it any differently."

Joe Girardi, Yankees manager: "I think it was a night that we mixed and matched a lot. We didn't necessarily have a starter for that night. We used a lot of our bullpen that day."

Girardi on not using normal pen

Dellin Betances, Yankees starting pitcher: "I found out the same day that I was pitching. Before coming on the field, I was obviously nervous. It was my first start at the big league level. They told me I was only going like a couple of innings. It was more about getting some guys work. I remember I got in trouble right away in the first inning and [Derek] Jeter, he came for a mound visit, and Jeter kind of calmed me down a little bit. ... Trying to be funny. It was funny at the time. It kind of calmed my nerves a little bit, and I was able to throw two scoreless."

David Price, Rays starting pitcher: "I just try and treat it like any other game. We had to win and for the Red Sox to lose in Baltimore. It was a crazy day and a crazy last two innings of baseball, for both teams."

Longoria, Rays third baseman: "I know I was nervous. I think everybody was. It was a nervous energy. We knew what we had to do. We knew what had to happen."

Topkin: "The way that game started, the way that game stood halfway through the game, it was over. I was writing as if they'd lost, it wasn't even going to matter what happened in the other game."

Teixeira, Yankees first baseman: "I kind of felt good that day. Felt strong. Got some pitches middle in and put good swings on them. You don't expect to score that many runs off David Price, especially in a game this big. It definitely quieted down a little bit. And in the middle innings, the crowd was pretty quiet."

Zobrist, Rays second baseman: "That made it feel like our season was probably over."

Tom Foley, Rays third base coach: "Halfway through the game we looked like were pretty much cooked, like it was over."

Dewayne Staats, Rays play-by-play broadcaster for FOX: "Reality starts to creep in. You start thinking it's finished; there's no chance."

Kelly Shoppach, Rays starting catcher: "Now that I'm retired, I can honestly tell you that I was trying to hit a three-run homer every time I got in the box. The game plan never changed for me. We're just trying to scratch and claw to get everything we can."

Joe West, home-plate umpire: "I remember Joe Maddon walking off after changing pitchers. I inadvertently said, 'Well, you had a good run at it. You gave it your best.' I was thinking it's all over. Then he said, 'Thank you,' and kept walking.

Part 2: "I would say 99 times out of 100, you hook that ball foul."

The bottom of the eighth started with the Rays down, 7-0. Johnny Damon led off the inning with a single, and Zobrist followed with a double. Then Casey Kotchman, who had the only two hits in the first seven innings, was hit by a pitch.

Sam Fuld was walked to bring in the first run. Then Sean Rodriguez was hit to bring in another. A B.J. Upton sac fly with one out made it 7-3, and Longoria cut the deficit to one with a three-run home run.

Cory Wade had been with Tampa Bay in Spring Training and spent most of April and May with Triple-A Durham. He had a 1.23 ERA in 21 appearances with the Bulls before opting out of his contract and signing with the Yankees.

Wade entered the game in the ninth inning and was one strike away from closing out the Rays' playoff hopes that night. With the Red Sox still leading the Orioles, 3-2, there was a chance Johnson would be Tampa Bay's final hope.

Foley: "I guess one of the biggest things that I can remember was Johnny Damon [blooping a single to left-center to get it started]. ... Sean Rodriguez getting hit with a pitch, keeping the inning going. Things just started to steamroll a little bit. And we just kept coming back and coming back. You hear the news, the crowd cheering. You want to know why they're cheering. You look up at the scoreboard, things are happening." 

Rays' six-run eighth

Staats: "When they made it 7-3, [analyst Brian Anderson] and I kind of looked at each other and said, 'You know, they're going to win this game.' After that inning, during the break, both of us started to get that feeling at the same time."

Kotchman: "It starts tightening up, and you know it's not over until that out is recorded. One pitch changes things."

Johnson: "It started getting later and later. Then finally, when something did start happening in the eighth, it was like, 'Here we go.' Things kept falling and going the right way. When [Longoria] hit the huge home run to put us within one, that's when everyone was like, 'Oh my gosh, this is really happening. We're right back in this thing.' You hear the crowd was getting back into it. You see people were starting to get on the edge of their seats."

Longoria: "I think everybody feels that pressure. I don't know if one person bears the weight of the entire team. But yeah, I felt like, when I had the opportunity to, that I should be able to drive in some runs. And later on, I was able to do that."

Wade: "From the outside looking in, you're almost kind of pulling for them a little bit. I wasn't actually scheduled to pitch in the game. I wasn't even going throw because we had clinched. In the sixth inning, they were like, 'You might close the game if we have the lead.'"

Johnson: "I was supposed to bat fifth in that inning. I was up in the cage. I am taking it easy out there. First two guys got out, I was watching Sam Fuld come out to the plate. Then a security guy ran over and yelled at me in the cage and said, 'Hey, they want you to hit now.' Straight panic, because the cage is halfway up to the tunnel. Had to run back down the stairs to get everything on and get out there."

Foley: "When Dan came up, there was a somber feeling. There were two outs, and next thing you know, there's two strikes. It's like, 'Oh man. He'll probably throw the changeup down and away.' You're thinking, it's just, you know."

Zobrist: "I remember being on the bench and seeing Joe make the call and Dan Johnson going up to hit and all of us are going, 'Are you kidding me?' Sam [Fuld] had been swinging it well, and Dan is a great hitter and had always been a good hitter, but that year was probably the worst year of his career. He hadn't had a hit with our team since like April. He had gotten called up in September but barely played at all because we were in the race the whole time. And [he had] barely got any pinch-hits, and when he did, I don't think he did anything with them. So this is a guy sitting on no live at-bats for about three weeks, and we're going to plug him in with the season on the line and put it on his shoulders. We're thinking, like, 'What are you doing, Joe? Sam has a good chance of getting in scoring position if he gets on base.' I felt bad for Dan."

Dave Martinez, Rays bench coach: "The only reason he was with us was to come off the bench and hit a home run."

Price: "[Wade] had like a 1.20 ERA [in May with the Rays' Triple-A affiliate], and everyone was looking around like, 'Why aren't we calling this guy up?' Opts out of his contract, goes to New York and throws the ball really well there. He just so happened to be on the mound."

Wade: "I had thrown him a couple other changeups in that at-bat. I threw that pitch all the time. It was the one pitch that I knew if it came back over the plate, it was going to beat me. If I kept it away, I was going to be fine. I never have issue throwing that pitch to a lefty. If I miss, I miss it away, but it just cut a little bit. It honestly did; it cut a little bit. And he got his barrel to it."

Johnson: "I would say 99 times out of 100, you hook that ball foul. That's one of those balls that's a good pitch. It just so happened that I knew this guy Cory Wade that was on the mound had this changeup that wore lefties out. I sat back on the changeup the entire at-bat. I ended up taking a fastball that was right there that I should have hit early. But I was in the mindset that it was a changeup."

Johnson's game-tying homer

Topkin: "You're fighting a deadline situation. With a newspaper, we're on a hard deadline. So you're trying to figure out, what are you going to do, depending on how the game ends, and when the game is going to end. You hear about players talking about the game speeding up on you. It sped up on me in that situation."

Johnson: "Watching it go, I'm like, 'Stay fair. Stay fair.' Then when it did, it was just like this moment where I wanted to get around the bases and celebrate with the team. The round of the bases was almost a blur. I couldn't wait to get back. ... It seems like everything that Joe comes up with turns into gold. If you watch, it's almost like he expected it. The reaction from Joe, he just flips his card over and starts writing. Like, 'Oh yeah, I knew that was going to happen.'"

Part 3: "You try to run that script for a Kevin Costner baseball movie, they turn it down, saying nobody would believe that."

Both the Yankees and Rays traded zeros through the first two extra innings. In the top of the 12th, the Yanks had runners on first and third with no one out. Rookie reliever Jake McGee got out of the jam for the Rays, which set up a second, even more heroic moment for Longoria.

Inside the clubhouse, players congregated to watch the Red Sox and Orioles play. In the NL, the Cardinals were intently watching the Braves and Phillies -- hoping to clinch a playoff spot with an Atlanta loss.

At 12:05 a.m. the Orioles recorded three straight hits in the bottom of the ninth after Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon had struck out the first two batters. Nolan Reimold tied the score, and then Robert Andino won it with a single. At 12:08 a.m., Longoria sent Tampa Bay to the AL Division Series, 28 minutes after St. Louis clinched its spot.

Reimold: "I just remember everyone was really into the game. Fans knew we weren't going to the playoffs, but they loved to see us knock the Red Sox out of the playoffs. So for them, it meant a lot. And for us, it meant a lot to finish the year strong. Everybody was very competitive. We just battled to the end."

Johnson: "There was guys inside watching. Ultimately the way we found out was just watching the people that were sitting in the boxes went nuts. You just see people jumping and screaming like there was nothing going on in our game. We were like, 'That just happened.' Then a couple of guys ran out from the clubhouse and were like, 'You wouldn't believe what just happened.'"

Rays fans react to Boston loss

Reimold: "It looked dead. He struck out the first two guys. Then [Chris Davis] was able to hit a double down the line. Then I got up 2-0, then I swung through two fastballs, 2-2. I don't know what would have happened if he'd switched it up and threw a different pitch, but he threw me two fastballs in a row, and I was able to put it in play and score that run."

Zobrist: "I went up to the clubhouse and I was grabbing a [food] bar, and the guys started going nuts, and I said, 'What just happened?' And they said [the Orioles] just tied it up. Now we're both tied. It's nuts. I grab a bar and run down to the dugout to tell the guys there. They hadn't posted it on the board yet."

Robert Andino, Orioles infielder: "We weren't going to just mope about it because we weren't in the playoffs. We had nothing to lose. Honestly, all the pressure was on everybody else. They just gave us the motivation. I was just looking for something out. He has a lot of plus pitches to put you out."

Longoria: "I was on deck. We saw the final score pop up on the board. It was probably a minute or two before I went to the plate. So I was well aware. We were really focused on winning the game. The game was tied. We knew regardless, if we won the game, we were going to play another day. It wasn't until that point that we realized if we win, we're going to move on."

Zobrist: "B.J. [Upton] strikes out, and right before he strikes out, we see some guys in an area in the outfield, and they're in suits. They're front-office guys. They're jumping up and down, going crazy, and nobody else in the stadium knew why. We're like, 'Dude, something must have happened.' Then B.J. strikes out, they post [the Red Sox-Orioles final] on the board, and the crowd goes nuts. B.J. is like, 'What the?' He's walking back to the dugout and is like, 'What's going on?' The timing was hilarious."

Wade: "When I got done pitching in the game, I went in, we were sitting in the clubhouse. And I'm not going to name names, but I bet you there were six or seven of us watching the game. And we're rooting for, and not even rooting against Boston, but just rooting for a good game."

Price: "I was running back and forth, just watching, and it was a crazy 15 minutes or so."

Zobrist: "I was starved at that point. I hadn't eaten anything since way before the game, and it's a five-hour game."

Teixeira: "Listen, we tried to win the game, obviously. But we weren't disappointed that the Red Sox didn't make it. I'll put it that way."

McGee: "That time I was still pretty young around the big leagues, so I was just trying to make good pitches to make sure I got outs, because it was a very intense situation. I know once I got [Chris] Dickerson out, I was going to give all I had. I threw a 98 mph fastball on the outside corner, and they swung and missed. I think the biggest thing was in the dugout after I got out of that and it was a tied game. It was just surreal hearing the fans going crazy, because they're watching the Baltimore game. Once that happened, and then I don't know the timing, but it felt like five seconds later, Longo hit the home run to left field, and everyone was in shock."

Foley: "When he hit that ball, I didn't think it was getting out, because he hit it so hard and so low. But it just cleared the fence. I have to go back and look and see what I did. I don't remember what I was doing. I kind of remember slapping him five, slapping him on the back, running in and start celebrating. Big moments. That was a big game."

Longoria: "Immediately, I didn't think it was going to go out. I wanted to make sure I got on second base, because I know I hit it hard. I watched it go over the fence. And when it did, obviously I was excited."

Longoria's walk-off homer

Topkin: "I literally was looking down at my hands thinking, 'You got to write this. You just saw the most incredible thing that ever happened in baseball, and you have to write it, because you got like three minutes.'"

Chris Westmoreland, clubhouse manager: "We weren't really prepared for anything, then all of a sudden everything came together at once. I remember us having to, right at the end of the game, moving all the furniture out of the clubhouse. We had custom vinyl sheeting for lockers. We had an actual carpet that fit inside our clubhouse, to put above our carpet to keep all the champagne from getting in. I just remember the chaos of it all. Me and the staff were just running crazy."

Kotchman: "It was something like slow motion. It's no surprise that Longy comes up with the hit right there. It's like, 'Go figure he would do that.' It's kind of like Jeter in New York for his 3,000th hit. Some of those guys have a flair for the dramatic. That was something really special."

West: "The Longoria home run was the most unbelievable, most historic thing in that franchise's history."

Buck Showalter, Orioles manager: "You try to run that script for a Kevin Costner baseball movie, they turn it down, saying nobody would believe that. That's why we all come out here. Things happen that aren't supposed to happen."

Tony La Russa, Cardinals manager: "The celebration that we had in Houston for getting in that day topped the World Series and Championship Series and Division Series celebrations just for pure excitement. I mean the fact that, you've got to be kidding me, we're in without having to play one more game? It was so, we couldn't believe it. We could not believe it."

Cards react to clinching win

Jon Jay, Cardinals outfielder: "That was one of the funnest moments in my baseball career, waiting in that clubhouse for about three hours. All the boys, hanging out, watching the Phillies-Braves game and just rooting on the Phillies right there. They came through. I'll never forget it. I still have the home video on my phone of all of us going nuts inside the clubhouse in Houston."

David Freese, Cardinals third baseman: "We waited and waited, and I think Freddie Freeman hit a ground ball to first, they rolled up the double play, and off we went."

Wade: "It was a really cool time where you turned into a baseball fan. Because you weren't that the whole season. But that moment allowed us in that situation to be a baseball fan. It was fun to be a part of it."

Westmoreland: "I would say after that, it was three or four hours we spent in the clubhouse after everything was done. So probably from the end of the game, five or six hours. Oh yeah, [the sun is up]. If not, it's starting to."

Jay: "I remember watching Longoria hit the home run down the left-field line in the Rays game. There was just so much happening in baseball. It was such a cool day for baseball fans, and even for players ourselves. We all love this game. It was just an incredible day with so much uncertainty going on. Especially for us, that we went on to win the World Series. That was something that obviously changed my life forever and is something I'm very grateful for."

Longoria: "Those moments, they kind of go fast. That's why they have video, the stuff we can go back and look at whenever it's all said and done."

Johnson: "Those are like those key moments. One of those, I don't know how to explain it. When Carter hit the walk-off in Game 7. Those moments of baseball that kind of put a stamp on why people watch the game, why people follow the game, why people cheer for their team. It was just one of those moments kind of put a stamp on baseball."

Sam Blum is a reporter for MLB.com based in St. Petersburg. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.