ST PETERSBURG, FL - SEPTEMBER 28: Evan Longoria #3 of the Tampa Bay Rays hits a walk-off home run in the bottom of the twelfth inning against the New York Yankees during the game at Tropicana Field on September 28, 2011 in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)
We just witnessed history, folks. This is one of those nights that you remember forever, and that you end up telling your kids about one day. This is baseball at its finest, the grace note on a season that very few of us thought would end in the playoffs. It was one of the best days of baseball I've ever witnessed, and it was easily one of the most epic moments in franchise history. There's Game 7 of the 2008 ALCS....and then there's this. Simply, simply amazing.
The night didn't start off so well for the Rays, though, as David Price started the game off by handing the Yankees a 1-0 lead in the first. This run should have never scored; Ben Zobrist missed a routine groundball that would have been the third out of the inning, but instead, a run came around to score on the play. Price threw 30 pitches overall in the first, and you could tell that he didn't have his best stuff.
After the Rays stranded two runners in the bottom of the first -- this would be an ongoing saga throughout the game -- Price got right back to work letting up runs and letting the Yanks roll over him. He allowed a double, single and a walk, loading the bases with only one out. And then Mark Teixeira took care of business, sitting on Price's fastball (which was about all he threw on the evening) and knocking it to Kingdom Come. 5-0, Yanks...but the game wouldn't end that way. Not even close.
The Yankees tacked on two more runs in the fourth and fifth off two more home runs (Teixeira again, and then Andruw Jones), while the Rays offense was stymied and only managed two hits through the first seven innings of the game. It's not as if the Yanks were necessarily trying hard; they were rotating through a new pitcher every inning (or close to it), and they brought in many of their less-than-ideal bullpen arms. But still, the Rays' LOLfense couldn't seem to buy a hit, and the Rays entered the eighth inning down by seven runs and -- as Boston was beating Baltimore 3-2 at the time -- facing the distinct possibility of ending their season.
And then....It Happened. The Rays strung together an improbable rally in the bottom of the eighth, scoring six runs thanks to some poor pitching and timely hitting. Seam Fuld and Sean Rodriguez got RBIs for walking and being hit by a pitch, B.J. Upton hit a sacrifice fly, and Evan Longoria sealed the deal with a 3-run home run to bring the Rays within one run.
But when the bottom of the ninth inning opened, things didn't seem quite so optimistic. The Sox were still ahead of the Orioles by one run -- the game was stuck in a rain delay -- and the Rays had their first two hitters go down in order. So with two outs, Joe Maddon decides to pinch hit for Sam Fuld with Dan Johnson.
...Let that sink in for a bit first. The Rays were down to possibly they final out of the season, and Maddon was entrusting it to a batter that hit .108 in his 90 PA stint with the Rays earlier in the season. He'd lost the starting first base job to Casey Kotchman, and put up mediocre numbers in Triple-A this season. Sure, he had gotten big hits for the Rays in the past -- two of them, in fact -- but this seemed to be asking a lot of Johnson.
Man, I love being proved wrong. Johnson took Cory "Sleeper Cell" Wade deep in what was probably the most dramatic home run in Rays' franchise history, tying the game up and forcing extra innings.And from there, the rest was academic. It took some time for the Rays to finally put the Yankees away, but they did thanks to another home run from Evan Longoria in the 12th inning. Up in Baltimore, the Orioles handed the Red Sox their first loss of the season after entering the ninth inning with a lead. With the Rays' win and Boston's loss, that means the 2011 Rays are your AL Wild Card champs.
What a roller coaster ride. What an experience. I can't wait for playoff baseball, but I also don't think anything can come quite as close to perfection as this game. The Rays were nine games out in the beginning of September, but they played .630 ball down the stretch against primarily really good teams: seven against the Yankees, seven against the Red Sox, and four against the Rangers.
The Rays now face many different questions, like who they start in Game One of the ALDS. They don't have much time to reach a decision, as the first game against the Texas Rangers is scheduled for Friday.