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The Greatest Night In Baseball History

The very first Major League Baseball game was played on May 4, 1871 between the Cleveland Forest Cities and the Fort Wayne Kekiongas. A lot has changed in the national pastime in the 140 years, four months and 24 days since. Baseball has seen a number of odd and amazing things happen in the 51,281 days pass since then, but last night we may have witnessed the greatest night in baseball history.

The scene set at the beginning of the night was perfect. Two teams in each league tied for the last elusive playoff spot. Each league had one team (the Red Sox in the American League and the Braves in the National League) trying to stave off possibly the greatest collapses in baseball history while two others (the Rays in the AL and the Cardinals in the NL) looked to put the finishing touches on improbable comebacks.

The stories of how each team got here, into a tie on the final day of the season, are all very unique. On September 2, the Red Sox held a nine-game lead over Tampa Bay in the AL Wild Card race. No team in major league history had ever blown a nine-game lead in September. In the 25 games since September 2, the Red Sox gave up six runs or more in a game 18 times as Boston’s pitching staff surrendered an astounding 6.4 runs per game. Their starting pitchers compiled a 7.91 ERA over the last 19 games. The Red Sox would go 7-18 since September 2, falling into a tie for the AL Wild Card with Tampa Bay.

The Rays, despite vaulting nine games in the standings to catch Boston, had been on a rollercoaster ride in September. Tampa Bay was just 10-9 against every other team in baseball during the month. However, the Rays were able to make up ground so quickly because they dominated the Red Sox, winning six of seven games against Boston. By the time each team would play its final series of the year on September 26, Tampa Bay had vaulted itself into a tie atop the AL Wild Card standings.

On the National League side, the Braves were faltering in similar fashion to the Red Sox. Atlanta held an 8.5 game lead over St. Louis on September 5. However, since then, the Braves went 7-15, with 11 different pitchers taking a loss. During that stretch, Atlanta averaged only 3.09 runs per game and allowed 4.36 runs per game. Over the course of the season, those numbers were 3.96 and 3.73, respectively.

As Atlanta cooled off, the Cardinals began to catch fire. St. Louis’ run actually began a little bit earlier than the Braves’ collapse though, which allowed them to gain slightly more ground. On August 25, the Cardinals were 10.5 games behind Atlanta in the NL Wild Card race. In the 31 games since then though, St. Louis went 22-9, including a three-game sweep of the Braves from September 9 through 11. During that stretch, the Cardinals averaged 4.84 runs per game while surrendering just 3.84 runs per contest. With their 13-6 victory Tuesday over the Astros, St. Louis was finally able to erase the deficit and move into a tie atop the NL Wild Card leaders.

The final night of the season proved to be the final stop on the magical carpet ride the Rays and Cardinals had taken throughout September. However, for most of the night, it looked as if both of those teams would either not get the job done or be forced into a one-game playoff to decide their playoff faith the next day.

The Cardinals erased any chance of doubt early on by taking a 5-0 lead in the top of the first inning. They would cruise to an 8-0 victory, the only game of the four teams tied for a Wild Card spot that lacked drama.

Meanwhile, after a Ryan Howard RBI-double in the top of the first for Philadelphia, the Braves responded by tying the game on a Chipper Jones sacrifice fly in the bottom half of the frame. In the bottom of the third, Dan Uggla gave Atlanta their first lead of the game with a two-run home run to left to make it 3-1. However, the Phillies began to inch closer as the late innings fell upon Turner Field. A Jack Wilson error in the top of the seventh allowed Raul Ibanez to score to make it 3-2.

The score would stay that way as Braves manager Freddi Gonzalez summoned Craig Kimbrel, who saved a rookie-record 46 games this year, into the game to close things out in the ninth. Kimbrel immediately allowed a single to Placido Polanco, who was pinch-run for by Pete Orr. After striking out Carlos Ruiz for the first out, Kimbrel committed the worst sin that a pitcher can make; giving out free passes to first base for batters. He walked pinch-hitter Ben Francisco and followed that up with the same result to Jimmy Rollins to load the bases with one out. The free passes allowed Chase Utley to hit a sacrific fly to left and just like that, Kimbrel blew his eighth save of the season as the Phillies tied the game at three.

The game would remain scoreless until the 13th, with Atlanta missing a golden opportunity to win with runners on the corners and two outs in the 12th. Scott Linebrink entered the game out of the Braves bullpen for the top half of the inning and made the same egregious mistakes as Kimbrel. After striking out Dominic Brown, Linebrink walked Brian Schneider. Rollins flied to center for the second out but then an Utley single pushed Schneider to third. With runners on the corners and two outs, the same situation the Braves failed to score with in the bottom of the 12th, Hunter Pence hit a weak line drive that found a hole in the right side of the infield to give the Phillies a 4-3 lead.

Atlanta had one final opportunity to extend their season in the bottom frame of the 13th. However, with a runner on first and one out, Freddie Freeman grounded into a double play as the Braves’ season suddenly and shockingly ended. With five games to play, Atlanta had owned a three-game lead over St. Louis. In those five games, though, the Braves scored just seven runs, going 0-5. However, their bullpen implosion would not be the only one by a team on this night to put the finishing touches on a sinking season.

Over on the American League side, things could not have started off any better for the Red Sox. For just the third time in 15 games, the Red Sox would able to put a crooked number on the scoreboard before the opposing team, using a Dustin Pedroia single to take a 1-0 lead in the third. However, Boston coughed the lead right up on a two-run J.J. Hardy homer in the bottom half of the inning. The Red Sox continued to claw back though, scoring one in the fourth on a balk by Orioles pitcher Alfredo Simon and then using a Pedroia home run to take a 3-2 lead in the fifth.

As Boston was taking the lead and the reigns in the Wild Card race, Tampa Bay looked like their season would end because of their struggles against every other team besides the Red Sox. By the end of the fifth inning, the Yankees had a 7-0 lead and the Rays’ postseason hopes looked pretty much dead.

However, just like that though, a funny thing happened. It was almost as if the baseball gods intervened to suddenly change the fortunes of the games. As the Orioles and Red Sox stopped play for a rain delay, Tampa Bay suddenly began a miraculous comeback. With Boston watching from the locker room, the Rays got their first three men on base against Boone Logan in the bottom of the eighth. New York manager Joe Girardi decided to bring in Luis Ayala and Tampa Bay capitalized immediately. Sam Fuld walked score Johnny Damon to make it 7-1. Ayala hit Sean Rodriguez with a pitch to force in another run to make it 7-2 before striking out Desmond Jennings for the first out of the innings. B.J. Upton then hit a sacrifice fly to make it 7-3 with two outs and the Rays’ hottest hitter, Evan Longoria, coming to the plate. Suddenly, with two men on, a glimmer of hope appeared at the end of the tunnel for Tampa Bay. Longoria crushed a pitch over the fence in left field, and just like that the Rays were within one at 7-6. John Jaso singled before Ayala retired Damon to end the inning and stop the bleeding.

Tampa Bay was afforded one more shot in the bottom of the ninth inning to put their playoff destiny in their own hands. The Yankees’ new pitcher, Cory Wade, retired the first two hitters of the plate though, and suddenly the Rays were down to their final out. With light-hitting Sam Fuld due up next, Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon made the curious decision of pinch-hitting Dan Johnson. Among non-pitchers with at least 50 plate appearances this year, Johnson (.119) had the lowest batting average this season of any hitter in baseball. However, be it the baseball gods or Maddon’s knowledge that since 2008, Johnson was 17-for-52 (.327) with eight home runs and 14 RBIs in 22 games against the Red Sox and Yankees and just . 20 for 168 (.119 with three homers and 17 RBIs in 56 games against the rest baseball, Johnson came through. Down to his final strike, Johnson crushed a ball over the fence in right field to miraculously tie the game and send it to extra innings.

Soon afterwards, the Red Sox and Orioles resumed play at Camden Yards. The Boston bullpen was able to keep Baltimore off the scoreboard in the seventh and the eighth and hand the ball to closer Jonathan Papelbon for the ninth inning with a 3-2 lead. Coming into this game, the Red Sox were 77-0 this season when leading after eight innings. Papelbon struck out the first two batters of the inning and the Red Sox were one out away from controlling their own destiny once again in the postseason hunt. However, fate kicked in against Boston. Chris Davis hit a double and then Nolan Reimold stepped to the plate. Papelbon pumped two fastballs by the bat of Reimold and Boston was just one strike away. However, Reimold smashed a ground-rule double into right to tie it at three. Robert Andino then digged into the box. It would be the last batter of the Red Sox’s miserable and depressing fall from grace. Andino lined a ball hard into left field. Charging hard was Carl Crawford, who slid feet first, but the ball clanked off his glove, scoring Reimold and sending Boston back into the clubhouse with a loss after leading in the eighth inning for the first time all season.

At this time, the Yankees and Rays had moved into the bottom of the 13th inning. Pitching for New York was Scott Proctor, who had throw 2.1 innings of scoreless baseball as Longoria stepped back into the box. With the eyes of a tormented Red Sox Nation now upon him, Longoria worked the count to 2-2. He then fouled off a pitch before lining a rocket down the left field line. The ball stayed fair and flew just over the fence as the Rays celebrated being the first team in baseball history to overcome a nine-game deficit to make the postseason. It was just the third time in Yankees history, and first since 1953, that New York blew a seven-run lead in the 8th inning or later. Like what happened to the Braves, it took one final bullpen collapse to be the final straw of the Red Sox’s season, finishing off the most epic collapse of all-time.

Boston did not win consecutive games since beating Oakland in a doubleheader on August 27.  The Red Sox were 1-2 against Texas, 2-5 against Toronto, 1-6 against Tampa Bay, 2-5 against Baltimore and 1-4 against the Yankees in September, finishing 7-20 overall in the month. The 20 losses in September were the most by a Red Sox team in the month since 1952. The team with baseball’s third-highest payroll will be watching the playoffs from home for the second season in a row while the Rays, who own the major’s second-smallest payroll, will be going to the postseason for the third time in four years.

The night started with the potential to be magical, but it proved to be even better than that. The Rays were one strike away from losing. The Red Sox were one strike away from winning. But in each case, the opposite happened. The timing of the games and the simple brilliance of ninth-inning rallies, two teams’ bullpen collapses and a walk-off home run proved to be as dramatic as baseball can get. With so much on the line, seeing all of this was unbelievable. When the dust settled, the only word that could even come close to describing the enchantment of the cascade of events crashing down last night is this one: Amazing.

There have been 51,282 nights in baseball history. None of them were better and filled with more collective drama and magic than what we witnessed last night.


Monday Night Madness Podcast No. 3

I was on the airwaves by myself this week. Monday Night Madness began with discussion of both the American League and National League Wild Card races. I then discussed Week 3 in the NFL with the excitement surrounding the Buffalo Bills and Detroit Lions and why the Philadelphia Eagles, New York Jets and Pittsburgh Steelers. The show wraps up with the decline of Maryland football.

You can also download the Monday Night Madness podcast on iTunes or download the show by clicking here!


The Hit That Began America’s Healing

I was in fifth grade on the day of September 11, 2001. Like most fifth graders, the day of school began with thinking about how recess would go, what I would have for lunch, if I’d have any homework and when I could see my friends after school. It ended totally differently.

There is no other day of school in my life I can remember this vividly. My teacher, Mrs. Mains, asked the class if any of our parents worked in New York City. I raised my hand.

From a very young age, I recognized how special and how different New York was from every other city in the world. I would go to New York regularly with my dad. About three or four times per month, we would take the train into the city and I always remember the excitement of going there. I loved it.

We went for various reasons. Sometimes we went to see the New York Mets play. Mostly, though, we went because I was born with a cleft lip and palate, and that’s where my doctor was. After each trip to the doctor’s office, we would walk to the Second Avenue Deli. Even with all the people in the city, our waiter there knew our names. Those times were special and I will always cherish them because I got to spend them with my dad.

I remember being so excited to tell the class that my dad worked in the World Trade Center. Growing up, that was what I was most proud of. In the greatest city in the world, with all of its famous sites, my dad worked in one of the Twin Towers, the most famous set of buildings. I said the words “Twin Towers” to my teacher and her face turned to horror. I never will forget that look.

I am forever grateful that my father was not working in New York that day. But there are so many others that weren’t so lucky. Living in New Jersey with friends and family all over New York, I know people who had their families ripped apart. Their lives were totally changed that day and I know if it still affects me, it must still affect them.

I think with what happened, we learned how important sports were in our country’s slow return to normalcy. There was one baseball game that seemed begin the healing process for everyone.

The Mets hosted the Atlanta Braves at Shea Stadium on September 21, 2001, the first game played in New York City since that dreadful day. The crowd that night wasn’t sure how to act. The emotion was still pouring out of the city’s open wound.

In the bottom of the eighth inning, Atlanta led by a score of 2-1 and brought in set-up man Steve Karsay, who got the first batter, Matt Lawton, to groundout to shortstop. Karsay then walked Edgardo Alfonzo and Desi Relaford immediately entered the game to pinch-run. The next batter was Mike Piazza. Piazza took strike one before launching the next pitch over the center field wall to give the Mets a 3-2 lead. It took just one simple swing of the bat to send Shea Stadium into a frenzy. The home run was a sign telling not just Mets fans, but the city of New York, that it was okay for the country to begin healing.

 

Mike Piazza smashed 427 homers during his 16-year career. None were more important than that one.


Why The Nats Are Making The Right Decision With Strasburg

The Nationals have announced that Stephen Strasburg will return to the major leagues September 6 at home against the Los Angeles Dodgers. It will be Strasburg’s first big league start since undergoing Tommy John Surgery on September 3, 2010. Most players who undergo the surgery take anywhere from 12-to-18 months to fully recover and then rehab before returning to the majors. Strasburg will take the Nationals Park mound exactly 12 months and three days after his surgery date. Some may wonder why the Nationals, who are 63-70 and 23 games behind the Philadelphia Phillies in the National League East, are risking his health by bringing him back for a few starts in September with Washington out of the playoff race. However, the Nationals are making the right decision by not shutting down Strasburg and instead, letting him pitch this year.

The Nationals’ decision allows Strasburg much more comfort in adjusting back to Major League Baseball. The Nationals are going to give their young minor league talent a look over the final month of the season to audition for future roster spots. Strasburg, who, after being the No. 1 pick of 2009 amateur draft went 5-3 with a 2.91 ERA, 1.074 WHIP, 12.2 K/9 ratio and 5.41 K/BB ratio in 12 starts last year, is clearly the future ace of the Nationals if healthy. Therefore, there is no pressure for him to try to earn a roster spot with his performance over the final month. He can shake off the butterflies from returning to the majors and readjust to big league hitters now, rather than in the beginning of 2012 when Washington figures to field a more competitive ballclub.

The Nationals only have to look to a fellow starter on their team and a division rival’s starting pitcher to know they are making the right decision. Washington is shutting down 25-year old starter Jordan Zimmermann, who underwent Tommy John Surgery in August of 2009, to limit his innings this season. Strasburg will easily slide right into Zimmermann’s slot in the rotation, but can also learn from his experience. After going under the knife nearly the same time of the year as Strasburg did, Zimmermann returned on August 26, 2010 to make seven big league starts and re-acclimate himself to the mound. Zimmermann struggled in those seven starts, going 1-2 with a 4.94 ERA and 1.323 WHIP. However, he was able to regain his strength, shake off the butterflies and learn how to pitch again at the major league level during that short stint. Zimmermann made what is presumably his final start of the season August 28, but finished with a very good 2011 campaign, his first full season back from the surgery. In 26 starts, he went 8-11 with a 3.18 ERA, 1.147 WHIP and 124 strikeouts in 161.1 innings. His brief return to the mound last season got out all of the jitters from the stigma of returning from Tommy John Surgery and allowed him to focus on what would ultimately be a very good year in the offseason.

Atlanta Braves pitcher Tim Hudson underwent Tommy John Surgery on August 8, 2008, close to the same calender date as Strasburg. Like Zimmerman, Hudson returned the very next season to make seven major league starts. Hudson’s performance, while not poor, was below his impressive career standards. He went 2-1 with a 3.61 ERA, 1.465 WHIP and 30 strikeouts in 42.1 innings over those seven starts. However, in 2010, his first full season back from Tommy John Surgery, Hudson was stellar, going 17-9 with a 2.83 ERA, 1.150 WHIP and 139 punchouts in 228.1 innings of work over 34 starts. Returning in meaningless September games (Atlanta finished the season 86-76 and in third place of the NL East) helped Hudson learn again how to pitch in the major leagues and helped him have one of the best seasons of his career on a 2010 Braves team he was instrumental in leading to the postseason.

There will be people who accuse the Nationals of bringing back Stephen Strasburg for the final month of the season just to sell tickets. However, Washington is making the best decision not from a business point of view, but from a baseball standpoint. Like how the Braves handled Tim Hudson and Washington handled Jordan Zimmermann, bringing back Strasburg now, rather than the beginning of next season, allows him to get the fanfare of returning from Tommy John surgery out of the way and readjust to pitching in the major leagues. If Strasburg follows the model of Zimmermann and Hudson, he will struggle slightly this September, but by next September may be enjoying the best season of his career.


The Forgotten Ace

When you think of the Atlanta Braves, you probably think of pitching. The team’s history is filled with dominant pitchers. The old saying of “(Warren) Spahn and (Johnny) Sain and pray for rain” applies to the Boston Braves’ dominant top of the rotation in the late 1940s and early ’50s. Phil Niekro was a staple as the ace of the Braves rotation for more than two decades. Atlanta’s rotation in the ’90s is considered to be one of the greatest of all-time, featuring Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Steve Avery.

This year’s rotation is one of the best in baseball, currently fourth in the majors in ERA (3.22). The members who probably come to mind first– Tommy Hanson, Tim Hudson, Derek Lowe — have all been very good this season. But there is a different Braves pitcher who happens to own a better ERA than Jered Weaver, Justin Verlander, Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels. His WHIP is better than that of Cliff Lee, Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum and Felix Hernandez. He is walking less hitters per nine innings than Chris Carpenter, Mark Buehrle, C.C. Sabathia and Clayton Kershaw. No pitcher in baseball has more wins, yet why is Jair Jurrjens not talked about in the Braves’ rotation and as a potential National League Cy Young candidate?

His numbers this season are more than stellar. Jurrjens is 11-3 with a 1.89 ERA in 104.2 innings (15 starts). He is averaging 6.98 innings per start and owns a 1.061 WHIP, in part because he walks just two batters per nine innings. He has the best ERA+ (202) in baseball. Opponents are hitting just .229 against him on the year, with a .276 on-base percentage and a .313 slugging percentage. Over his past three starts, Jurrjens is 3-0 with a 0.89 ERA in 20.1 innings, including a one-hit, eight-strikeout, complete game shutout of the Baltimore Orioles last night. He has allowed just 12 hits while striking out 14 and walking seven. Opponents are hitting .171/.247/.229 against him during that span.

What has been the difference this season for Jurrjens’ rise this year? Opponents have swung and missed at his pitches less this season (8.9 percent in 2010 to 7.3 percent in 2011) and his strikeout rate has also dropped (6.7 K/9 in 2010 to 5.4 K/9 in 2011). He has also gotten lucky, as opponents are posting a .257 batting average on balls in play, well below the league-average of .300. But at 25 years old, it appears he has matured and has learned how to become an efficient pitcher. He is using his fastball less, throwing it 63.9 percent of the time in 2010 compared to 58.4 percent of the time this season, and his changeup (20.2 percent in 2010 to 23.8 percent in 2011) and slider (15.9 percent in 2010 to 17.9 percent in 2011) more. The increase in the use of his off-speed pitches has helped him keep hitters off balance and keep things on the ground. Jurrjens is inducing groundballs 43.9 percent (compared to 39,9% in 2010) and flyballs in 34.2 percent (compared to 41.9 percent in 2010) of at-bats that do not end in a strikeout, walk or hit batsman. As a result, Jurrjens’ home run rate has dropped from 8.8 percent to 4.6 percent.

Jair Jurrjens’ first-half performance is likely unsustainable due to the luck factor. However, his 2011 pitching success should not be altered too much during the second half of the season. By walking few hitters, and using his off-speed pitches to pitch to contact, he has become one of the best pitchers in the National League on one of the best staffs in baseball. As long as he continues to show the look of a poised, mature pitcher and throw the ball well for the Braves, there is no doubt that Jair Jurrjens deserves to be included with Halladay, Lee, Hamels and Kershaw when it is time to discuss the NL Cy Young Award at the end of the season.


Why Baseball Is Great

We are officially at, or just past (depending on the team), the midway point in the Major League Baseball season. In the sport with the fewest playoff spots, there are so many teams competing for the right to play in October. The lack of playoff spots is one of the many things that makes this sport so special. Just eight of the 30 MLB teams will make the postseason, compared to the 16 playoff teams in both the NBA and NHL and the 12 NFL teams that vie for the right to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.

Having such few teams make the playoffs creates a strong emphasis on succeeding in the regular season, and as long as baseball’s regular season is, we have the potential to see some very compelling races in August and September. Twenty teams either lead a division or are within seven games of a playoff spot. There is no division separated by more than a four game lead.

A number of surprise teams remain in the mix for a playoff spot. Behind Andrew McCutchen, the Pittsburgh Pirates sit at 41-39, just two games behind the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Central. The Arizona Diamondbacks are two games behind the San Francisco Giants in the NL West and three games behind the Atlanta Braves in the NL Wild Card race with a record of 44-38. The New York Mets and Washington Nationals are 5.5 and 6.5 games behind Atlanta in the Wild Card race, respectively.

In the American League, few thought that the Cleveland Indians would spend 80 days during the first half of the year leading the Central. The Indians have stumbled slightly, but are 0.5 games behind the Detroit Tigers right now. Rookie sensation Michael Pineda has helped the Seattle Mariners come within 3.5 games of the defending AL Champion Texas Rangers in the West, even though the Mariners have been outscored by 13 runs this season and have a record below .500, at 39-42. After losing Carlos Pena, Carl Crawford, Jason Bartlett, Matt Garza, Rafael Soriano and their entire 2010 bullpen to free agency and various trades, the Tampa Bay Rays sit just four games behind the New York Yankees in the East and 1.5 games behind the Boston Red Sox for the AL Wild Card. The Rays are 45-36 despite having star third baseman Evan Longoria play in only 53 games during the first half of the season.

The first half of the Major League Baseball season featured many storylines, but none may be more compelling than the playoff races that will determine the fate of the 20 teams who have their eyes on the postseason. There will be teams who falter down the stretch during the second half of the season. However, with so many teams fighting year in and year out for one of the precious few trips to the postseason, baseball’s emphasis on a strong regular season is unrivaled by any sport. With 20 teams in competition for just eight playoff spots, the next three months of the season will feature postseason races that come down to the wire and show just why baseball is so special.