MLB.com Columnist

Anthony Castrovince

Cards, Rays define 2011 season finale

Cards, Rays define 2011 season finale

Cards, Rays define 2011 season finale
You could script either story individually, and each would be a tantalizing tale that defines what we love so much about sport. The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat and a long road coming to a captivating coda.

But to pair the tales of the 2011 Cardinals and Rays together, to sell their stories as synchronized, would seemingly be going too far.

After all, who would believe it?

If we hadn't witnessed the night of Sept. 28, 2011, in Major League Baseball with our own eyes, we'd struggle to accept it as anything other than flawless fiction. Not one but two historic comebacks completed on the same night? Both in extra innings? Both within 25 minutes of each other?

Come on, that's crazy stuff.

So crazy that it actually happened.

"Almost everybody, to a person, that wants to talk about it talks about it as the best hour in the history of Major League Baseball, at least within their lifetime," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "That causes you to reflect and pause and say, 'Wow, that was that powerful.'"

Any number of seemingly minor modifications would have polluted the powerful plot. The season schedule itself had to cooperate with the cause. Sunday afternoon endings to the regular-season slate had been the custom, but MLB rearranged things in 2011 to assure the avoidance of November playoff games. The season began on a Thursday and ended on a Wednesday.

More specifically, a Wednesday night. Prime time.

And what a wild Wild Card Wednesday it turned out to be.

* * *

Just a few weeks prior, the postseason slots in both leagues seemed all but certain. Even as the AL East began to slip from their hands, the Red Sox nonetheless held a firm hold on the Wild Card. And though the Braves never truly threatened the Phillies for the NL East top spot, they were so far removed from the Cardinals that their Wild Card also seemed a foregone conclusion.

On Sept. 1, the Red Sox's lead on the Rays was nine games, and the Braves' lead on the Cards was 8 1/2. It was all sewn up.

And then, over the course of September, it all became unraveled.

By the time play began on Sept. 28, both Wild Card races were dead even. In fact, not a single postseason series setup was settled. The Rangers and Tigers were still fighting for the AL's second seed and likewise the Brewers and D-backs in the NL. As late as 10:36 p.m. ET on the final night of the season, not a soul knew what a single Division Series matchup would be.

The picture became a bit clearer when Mike Napoli went deep in the top of the ninth in Anaheim, giving the Rangers a 3-1 lead on the Angels that they would not relinquish and ensuring themselves home-field advantage in a first-round series against the Wild Card, with the Yankees and Tigers set to square off in the other AL set. About 20 minutes later, the Brewers wrapped up a 7-3 win over the Pirates, ensuring home-field advantage in the NLDS.

But who would the Rangers and Brewers face? That question hung heavy in the air.

Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter took the mound in Houston that night, knowing a win over the Astros would at least ensure St. Louis of a tiebreaker with the Braves the following day. And with a dominant two-hit shutout of the Astros, he ensured his club would at least live to see another day and, in retrospect, provided a preview of the win-or-go-home grit he'd display in October.

"Going into that last day of the year, you try to eliminate the distractions," Carpenter said. "The games are obviously big games with consequences, but if you can simplify them and just concern yourself with executing your game plan, the easier it is."

Carpenter led the way to an easy 8-0 win, and all that was left for the Cardinals was to retreat to the visitor's clubhouse at about 10:25 p.m. and watch the remainder of the Braves-Phils game in Atlanta, which had dragged into extras in a 3-3 tie, thanks to a Chase Utley sac fly in the top of the ninth off closer Craig Kimbrel.

"We were all sitting around in the clubhouse and training room," Cards GM John Mozeliak recalled, "watching every pitch and agonizing throughout those final moments."

* * *

The Red Sox and Rays endured an agony all their own.

It looked bleak for the Rays. They fell behind 7-0 against the Yankees on their home turf, and that's the disadvantage they took into the eighth inning. And even though this was a decidedly hodgepodge Yankees lineup, the simple fact was that no Yankees team had blown such a lead in 58 years.

Meanwhile, the Red Sox and Orioles were about an hour into a rain delay in Baltimore, with Boston holding a 3-2 lead in the middle of the seventh.

"Realistically," Rays outfielder Sam Fuld said, "right up until the seventh or eighth inning, you're thinking, 'Let's just play for tomorrow. At least the Baltimore game is not out of hand.' The sense I got was we were just kind of out of it and we were just going to become big Orioles fans. Maybe that was the distraction we needed to erase such a big deficit."

They began to erase it by loading the bases off Boone Logan. Fuld drew a walk off Luis Ayala, and the Rays had their first run. Two more would come across the plate before the scope of the game -- and of the night -- took its most dramatic turn yet. Evan Longoria came to the plate with two out and two on and ripped a first-pitch fastball from Ayala over the left-field wall. Just like that, it was 7-6.

"You can't predict this game," Fuld said.

Want more proof? Look at what happened in the bottom of the ninth. Maddon pulled Fuld with none on and the Rays down to their final out. Dan Johnson, who spent much of the year in the Minors, hadn't notched a hit in the bigs since April. He was batting .108.

So naturally, he yanked a solo shot over the right-field wall to tie it up.

Eleven minutes later, the Red Sox and O's resumed.

"Where I was sitting, I could really only see the Philly-Atlanta game," Mozeliak said. "But people were coming in and telling us what was happening with the other games. It was riveting. To see how it really captured the baseball world was amazing."

* * *

Back and forth the emotions flew. The Braves had two runners aboard in the 12th, only to strand them both. And in the 13th, with two outs and runners on the corners, Hunter Pence, whom the Braves had tried to acquire earlier in the summer, got jammed by a Scott Linebrink fastball and sent a flare over the head of first baseman Freddie Freeman. The go-ahead run came home. And when David Herndon retired the Braves in order in the bottom of the inning, the game was over and the Cardinals' comeback was complete.

"Most of us were in the food room [at Minute Maid Park]," Carpenter said. "All I can remember is the excitement in the room, the uproar in the clubhouse after that final out."

The Cards began chanting what had become their mantra in a final stretch that saw them overcome a 10-game Wild Card deficit as late as Aug. 25.

"Happy flight! Happy flight!"

Said Mozeliak: "I think, from mid-August on, you sort of lived every day as if it was your last. The only thing I could say was it was a magical run for us. We needed to do a lot of things right, but we also needed a lot of luck. Everything aligned for us to get us in. And once we got in, we were a dangerous club."

The Phillies would find that out the hard way. It was their sweep of the Braves that would open the postseason door for the Cardinals, and they were themselves felled the following week, with Carpenter sealing the deal in a decisive Game 5 of the NLDS. And the Cardinals, of course, kept going. Down to their last strike twice in Game 6 of the Fall Classic against the Rangers, they rallied both times, then capped it off with a Game 7 clincher for their 11th World Series title.

None of it would have been possible without that wild ride that climaxed Sept. 28.

But the Cardinals' climax, which concluded at 11:40 p.m., was just one piece of the puzzle.

The clock struck midnight on the East Coast right about the time O's outfielder Nolan Reimold belted a game-tying ground-rule double off Boston closer Jonathan Papelbon in the bottom of the ninth. There were two outs when Robert Andino came to bat and sent a sinking line drive to left. Carl Crawford, who had bolted the Rays in free agency and been a Boston bust all season, dove for the ball but it hit the tip of his glove and skated away. Reimold sped home for the walk-off win, and the O's went nuts.

If you didn't know any better, watching the young Orioles form a dog pile at home plate, you'd think they had just clinched a playoff berth. But consider it a form of small-market solidarity. Everybody outside of Boston, it seemed, wanted to see the Rays outlast the Red Sox.

Three minutes later, that wish was granted.

The Red Sox retreated to the visitor's clubhouse at Camden Yards just in time to watch Longoria come to bat with one out in the bottom of the 12th at Tropicana. The time was 12:05 a.m., the count was 2-2, and Scott Proctor reared back and threw Longoria a 95-mph fastball. Longoria turned on it and sent a liner to left. In most parks, the ball would have hit the fence and fallen into play. But the Rays had lowered this particular portion of the fence a few years earlier, oddly enough, to allow Crawford to swipe more homers at the wall.

Nobody swiped this one. And when Longo's liner cleared the wall, the greatest night in regular-season history had the perfect final flourish to cement its legacy.

"Mind-boggling," Fuld said.

And what boggled the mind all the more is that the Hollywood-worthy heroics did not end there. As tough an act as the postseason itself had to follow, it lived up to the task. Three of the four Division Series went to a decisive fifth game, and the World Series between the Cards and Rangers was an absolute epic.

"I've spoken to many people that were not baseball fans that became fans because of that final day and the postseason this year," Carpenter said. "I think it was great for baseball."

And it all started with a night you could never script.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.