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."
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.