2011: What Wild Wednesday Wrought

Surging September comebacks by the St. Louis Cardinals and Tampa Bay Rays enliven a riveting final day of the regular season, ultimately setting the stage for one of the most memorable World Series ever played.

Boston's Mike Aviles and Atlanta's Martin Prado

Boston’s Mike Aviles (left) and Atlanta’s Martin Prado display utter dejection after both the Red Sox and Braves complete historic collapses with regular season-ending losses that deny them entry into the postseason. (Associated Press)

Baseball wanted its limelight back. Decades before, the game had the fall season all to itself, save for the weekends when football understandably held its own stake. Ten years into the new century, that landscape had dramatically changed; baseball now found itself increasingly shouting into a competitive autumn din, fighting for attention with hundreds of cable channels, YouTube, Netflix, the Kardashians and an overspread pro/college football schedule with games nationally broadcast almost every night. Realizing that the tradition of ending the season on a weekend had gradually become lost in the media warfare for one’s ear, Major League Baseball decided for 2011 to concede and end its season at midweek, when perhaps more people might watch and listen with a little less disruption.

The timing couldn’t have been any better to christen in the adjustment, as the game returned to center stage on a fabulous season-ending, late September Wednesday many now refer to as the greatest day in regular season history—and one that sprang an improbable postseason capped by one the most sensational World Series comebacks ever witnessed.

The continuous suspense that delightfully gripped baseball fans at season’s end was not foreshadowed eight months earlier, when most experts settled on the Boston Red Sox to win it all. And why not; an already talented team, the Red Sox fattened themselves up with an embarrassment of riches by signing proficient free agent outfielder Carl Crawford and trading for San Diego slugger Adrian Goznalez, who was bound to make Fenway Park look positively tiny after grinding out hard-earned but impressive numbers at the Padres’ voluminous home field of Petco Park.

The Boston lineup looked impenetrable on paper, and its offseason moves seemed ready to jettison the team, frustrated from breathing down the necks of the rival New York Yankees, to the top of the American League’s Eastern Division while the Yankees seemed to hold dangerously pat with age and pitching depth issues. And what of Tampa Bay, the defending AL East champions? After a mass exodus of players that included Crawford’s move to Boston and a complete restocking of a once-mighty bullpen, nobody thought much of the Rays’ chances for 2011.

It was the Red Sox’ division to lose—and they nearly lost it only two weeks into the season when they badly stumbled out to a 2-10 start. The team recovered and, as the season progressed, it caught up and began boxing with the Yankees for first place—with the Rays a distant third—but its awful April brought about unexpected vulnerability that would persist throughout the year.

Over in the National League, there were few if any surprises hatching early on. The Philadelphia Phillies, again most everyone’s pick to take the NL pennant, expectedly steamrolled out to an early lead in the East, followed next by the Atlanta Braves—a frisky, more youthful group nw led by former Florida manager Fredi Gonzalez (in place of the retired Bobby Cox), and spotlighted with an electric bullpen fronted by rookie closer Craig Kimbrel. By midseason, it was apparent that the Braves’ ambition was not to topple the Phillies, but to contentedly settle for the wild card spot—something that looked more and more assured as the summer rolled on and the other two divisions wallowed mostly in mediocrity.

Such encompassment of weakness proved especially endemic in the NL Central with a revolving door of first place teams; even the Pittsburgh Pirates—nearly two decades removed from their last finish above the .500 mark—held a share of the top spot as late as July 25. Eventually, a challenger pulled away from the pack: The Milwaukee Brewers, potently powered by the team’s slugging duo of Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, and further fueled by newly-arrived pitching muscle in former Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke and Shawn Marcum. And what of St. Louis, the perennial division favorite? With ace pitcher Adam Wainwright out for the season, Albert Pujols’ bad start and bad break (fractured arm in June), an underwhelming bullpen and a case of shingles for 66-year-old manager Tony La Russa, nobody thought much of the Cardinals’ chances down the stretch.

BTW: Alas for the Pirates, they would crash over the season’s final two months and be stuck with their 19th straight losing record.

By early September, the eight postseason opponents already appeared to be set in stone, and commissioner Bud Selig’s vision of heightened season-ending drama—whether it took place on a Wednesday, the weekend, whatever—looked doomed as he rang more loudly his public kneejerk opinion that two more wild card teams should be added to the playoff mix for the future. Although the Red Sox were slipping behind the Yankees—who were getting the most out of a susceptible rotation beyond ace CC Sabathia—they appeared to have the wild card spot all but sewn up as Tampa Bay, nine games behind, began to focus more on what ther minor league call-ups had to offer. Ditto for the Cardinals, who found themselves 8.5 games behind the Braves for the NL wild card position with time quickly running out. In St. Louis as in Tampa Bay, the word “mathematical” was being freely used when the topic of their postseason chances was discussed.

BTW: The New York rotation got unexpected lifts in 2011 from rookie Ivan Nova and reclamation projects Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia.

The glimmers of hope grew a bit lighter for both teams on the second weekend of September; the Rays swept the Red Sox in St. Petersburg, while the Cardinals did the same at home against Atlanta. But there was still a bit of catch-up work to do—and even then, the Rays and Cardinals still had to cross their fingers and hope that Boston and Atlanta would accommodate them and fall flat down the stretch.

Lo and behold, the Red Sox and Braves were all too unhappy to oblige.

As the season’s end loomed larger, the wild card races grew tighter as the Red Sox and Braves helplessly loosened their grips on once-assured playoff spots. After 161 games, both teams’ increasingly slim edges had been reduced to nothing; Boston and Tampa Bay were deadlocked at 90-71 for the American League wild card spot, while St. Louis had caught up to Atlanta and went into the regular season finale with identical 89-72 records. Bud Selig’s dream of a cliffhanging conclusion suddenly became wild reality.

And thus arrived the day of Wednesday, September 28.

The Braves had what seemed on paper to be a difficult assignment hosting Philadelphia, but the Phillies had already clinched both the division and home field advantage for the entire postseason. Resting up, they had nothing to gain except to make the Braves’ lives miserable. That they did. Trailing 3-1 after six innings, the Phillies scratched one run in the seventh and, in the ninth against Atlanta closer Craig Kimbrel—trying to extend not just the Braves’ season but his own rookie saves record to 47—they notched another tally to tie the game. As extra innings proceeded, the urgency factor ramped up for the Braves after learning that, 700 miles to the west, the Cardinals had wrapped up an all-too-easy 8-0 win over the hapless (56-106) Astros at Houston.

By now playing mostly against Philadelphia benchwarmers and minor league call-ups, the Braves’ A-team furiously tried to keep the season alive. Past the 10th inning. Past the 11th. Past the 12th. Then came the 13th, an unlucky frame for the Braves; the Phillies’ Hunter Pence blooped a perfectly-placed pop fly behind the infield to score the go-ahead run, and Atlanta’s rebuttal rally was shut down in midstride when Freddie Freeman’s double play grounder ended the game—and the season—for the Braves.

With Atlanta’s implosion complete, all eyes turned to the American League and the climactic scenes to its wild card saga.

Never Fold Your Cards in September

The comebacks of the St. Louis Cardinals and Tampa Bay Rays in 2011 registered atop those with the biggest deficits in the month of September. Interesting to note: The Cardinals, in their three years listed below, went on to win the World Series each time.

Biggest September Comebacks in MLB History

For three hours, it looked as if Boston would barely make good on its expensive investment and sneak into the postseason. Holding onto a one-run lead at Baltimore when heavy rain forced a delay, Red Sox players espied the out-of-town scoreboard and smiled with delight to see the Rays getting trounced by the Yankees after seven innings in St. Petersburg, 7-0. But the smiles began turning nervous as the score soon read 7-1. Then 7-2. Then 7-3. Then, suddenly, 7-6, when Evan Longoria walloped a three-run homer to cut deeply into the once-imposing Yankee lead. The Red Sox were relieved to see the scoreboard go from “8” to “9” under the inning column with no further scoring, and were hoping to see it go quickly to “F.” But such optimism was shredded when the Rays nudged the score to 7-7 as bench player Dan Johnson—hitting .108 and cornered to his team’s last strike in the ninth—kept Tampa Bay alive by parking a home run against Yankees reliever Cory Wade, who was given the job of closing out the game because incomparable New York closer Mariano Rivera was being rested for the postseason.

Ten minutes later, the Red Sox and Orioles resumed play in the seventh inning as Boston maintained its 3-2 lead—but squandered several golden opportunities to add late insurance runs as the game headed to the bottom of the ninth. Veteran Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon, brought in to seal the deal, struck out the first two Orioles he faced, but then gave up back-to-back doubles that tied the game; Robert Andino next struck a liner to short left that Carl Crawford, Boston’s free agent bust, couldn’t catch off his shoetops—nor could he throw out the winning run at home, plunging the Red Sox to defeat and leaving them helplessly watching the scoreboard to discover their postseason fate.

The denouement would be quick and painful.

Just three minutes later in St. Petersburg, Evan Longoria returned to the plate with one out in the bottom of the 12th and the game still tied at 7-7. But not for long. Longoria lined a shot that barely inserted itself over the fence right next to the left-field foul pole, ending the game and giving Tampa Bay the wild card spot in wild fashion to end a wild night.

For the highly disappointed Red Sox, the autopsy was almost as ugly as the crime itself. Manager Terry Francona and general manager Theo Epstein, who helped bring Boston its first two championships since the First World War, were let go as rumors flew wild of an out-of-control clubhouse in which starting pitchers drank beer, played video games and feasted on chicken during their off-days; of Francona distracted by a dissolved marriage, pain medications and a son serving in Iraq; of owner John Henry appeasing players angry of excessive travel from severe summer weather by giving them $300 headphones and a special evening on his yacht. A $163 million payroll not only failed to buy the Red Sox a playoff spot, it didn’t buy them happiness, either.

After all they did to deny the Red Sox, the Tampa Bay Rays’ celebratory advance into the postseason would be short-lived as they experienced a rerun of pain in the first round against, once again, the defending AL champion Texas Rangers—who by comparison coasted to their second straight AL West title with their usual dose of power offense and a firm starting rotation that boasted five pitchers with at least 13 wins. The Rays won the series opener at Arlington and appeared primed to continue its momentum-fueled march, but Texas quickly turned the tide and registered three straight close wins, the final two at Tampa Bay—with the 4-3 clincher all but solely carried by veteran third baseman and first-year Rangers Adrian Beltre, who launched three solo home runs.

BTW: Over their two ALDS losses to Texas from 2010-11, Tampa Bay was winless in five home games.

Having blunted the Rays, the Rangers moved on to the ALCS against the Detroit Tigers, who prospered from an overpowering MVP performance from ace pitcher Justin Verlander (24 wins, five losses and a 2.40 earned run average) and star hitter Miguel Cabrera (AL-best .344 batting average, 30 home runs and 105 runs batted in); eliminating the top-seeded Yankees in the first round only made the Tigers something more of a favorite despite lacking home field advantage for the series. But Verlander was not at top form and, despite drilling 13 home runs, the Tigers buckled in six games to the Rangers and outfielder Nelson Cruz, a one-man wrecking crew who bashed six homers and 13 RBIs—both figures setting records for a major league postseason series.

After losing the World Series the year before, the Rangers now hoped to even the score in their return to the Fall Classic. Their opponent: The St. Louis Cardinals.

Unlike the Rays, the Cardinals did not wilt after Wild Wednesday. On the contrary, they only got stronger; they staggered the highly-favored Phillies in the first round, clinching the five-game series at Philadelphia when Chris Carpenter, who threw a shutout over the Astros on the Wednesday season finale, threw another—outdueling Phillies ace Roy Halladay, 1-0, with a three-hit gem. Next, St. Louis took on divisional titlist/rival Milwaukee and pulled away with a six-game triumph, taking advantage of seven Brewers errors over the final two games and riding off the superb hitting of Albert Pujols—long since recovered from his broken arm—outfielder Matt Holliday and locally-raised third baseman David Freese, all of whom combined to destroy Milwaukee pitching with a wowing .485 average, six homers and 23 RBIs.

As Pujols went, so went the Cardinals in the first five games of the World Series against Texas. He unloaded on Rangers pitching in Game Three with five hits, including three homers and a Series-record 14 total bases in a 16-7 rout at Arlington; in the other four games, he was 0-for-12 as the Cardinals could only muster a collective total of six runs. That St. Louis had survived to Game Six at Busch Stadium was largely owed to reserve Allen Craig, who in each of the first two games slapped go-ahead pinch-hit singles in the seventh inning against Texas reliever Alexi Ogando; the Game One hit became a game-winner, but the Game Two knock was overcome by a successful ninth-inning Rangers rally initiated by a Pujols defensive gaffe.

BTW: Pujols became the third player, after Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson, to hit three homers in a World Series game.

David Freese's game-tying triple in 2011 World Series Game Six

The Texas Rangers are one strike away from their first-ever World Series title—until St. Louis’ David Freese hits this Neftali Feliz pitch for a two-run triple to tie the game. Two innings later, he’ll force Game Seven with a home run. (Associated Press)

For six innings in Game Six, both teams slogged through a tight, seesaw battle flawed by sloppy pitching and defense. In the seventh, the Rangers broke free; back-to-back homers by Beltre and Cruz highlighted a three-run rally that broke a 4-4 deadlock. The Cardinals scratched one run back in the eighth on a solo blast by Craig, but in the ninth against Texas closer Neftali Feliz, they still needed two runs to catch up and stay alive—circumstances that were hardly new for the Cardinals. In a sense, they had the Rangers exactly where they wanted them.

Pujols hit a one-out double, followed by a walk to Lance Berkman; after Craig whiffed for the second out, David Freese was down to his last strike before launching an opposite field drive to right field that Cruz tepidly appeared to approach—and as a result, couldn’t catch up to it, the ball hitting off the wall and back towards the infield as Pujols and Berkman both scored to send the game into extra innings.

The Rangers responded in the top of the tenth. Josh Hamilton, so badly hampered by an ailing groin that he easily would have been sidelined had it not been the World Series, punched out a two-run homer—his first of the postseason—to give Texas its lead back. Hamilton’s drive presented the Rangers with a second chance to close out the Cardinals; instead, it turned into a second case of déjà vu all over again.

The first two Cardinals singled to start the bottom of the 10th and both moved into scoring position with two outs for Pujols, as Cardinals fans by now had lost track of how many “final ovations” they had given their favorite star and pending free agent. With first base open, Texas manager Ron Washington agonized over which of the two evils would be the lesser one: Pitching to Pujols, or giving him a free pass, loading the bases and letting right-handed pitcher Scott Feldman face the switch-hitting Berkman—the NL Comeback Player of the Year who was at his best hitting left-handed.

Washington decided to take his chances against Berkman. Feldman worked the count to 2-2. For the second straight inning, the Rangers were a strike away from their very first championship.

And for the second straight inning, they were denied. Berkman blooped a single to center, scoring two runs and continuing the game to the 11th.

After the Rangers failed to score, Mark Lowe—the eighth Texas pitcher on the night—took to the mound and battled tough with his first batter, David Freese; the man who had started the agony for the Rangers in the ninth ended it when he clubbed a straight-away drive over the center-field fence, giving the Cardinals the winning run in a game instantly hailed by those who witnessed it as, without question, one of the greatest in baseball history.

BTW: Freese finished the playoffs with a postseason-record 21 RBIs.

Walking Dangerously

The Texas bullpen, so good in the Rangers’ first two postseason series, collapsed in the World Series against the Cardinals—greatly contributing to a Fall Classic-record 41 walks, 10 of which resulted directly in St. Louis runs.

Most Walks Allowed by a Team in a World Series

Emotionally spent and utterly let down from the Game Six experience, the Rangers had little bite left in the decisive seventh game at St. Louis. Texas did cross two first-inning runs across the plate, but the Cardinals matched that in the bottom of the frame and, with Chris Carpenter settling in on the mound, the Rangers had nothing more to give. Allen Craig’s third Series homer put the Cardinals ahead in the third, and they pulled away thereafter—capping one of baseball’s biggest comebacks from the dead with a 6-2 win.

BTW: Game Seven was the 11th played by the Cardinals in World Series history; it was their eighth triumph.

For rightfully delirious St. Louis fans, this would be the final hurrah for a team they had come to know and love over the past decade. Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, having piloted half his life in the majors, triumphantly called it quits after 33 years, six pennants and three world titles; more bitterly for Cardinal Nation, Pujols said goodbye and signed a 10-year, $240 million deal with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Meanwhile in Texas, dreams of a massive Rangers victory parade in the Metroplex were reduced to less than 60 loyal fans welcoming them back to DFW after midnight.

And they had wild Wednesday largely to blame.

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