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Midnight at the Trop
Midnight at the Trop

Sept. 28, 2011. The night that changed baseball.

OK, maybe that’s overblowing it a bit. But there are very few nights in sports history where you can pinpoint the moment which would lead to a change in the rules of the competition. And there are also very few nights you can see a dynasty dissolve before your eyes.

Both of these happened that fateful Wednesday night at the true mecca for baseball. A venue steeped in the sport’s history. Somewhere that holds a special place in hearts of players and fans:

Tropicana Field, St. Petersburg, Fla.

Time to set the scene a little bit and, for that, we need to flick back through the calendar to the start of September when the Boston Red Sox were 30 games over .500 and leading the American League East.

Standings in the AL East on Sept. 1, 2011

Heading into the 2011 season, the Boston media were making outlandish comparisons. Considering the Red Sox had failed to make the postseason the previous year, thoughts that this team would draw comparisons to the 1927 New York Yankees might have been a little off the mark – but certainly an October trip looked on the cards.

The Tampa Bay Rays had come unstuck early on, going 0-6 to compile their worst start to a season in franchise history. But their April ended with a winning record. Still, the Red Sox and Yankees managed to build comfortable leads over the Rays heading into the final month of the regular season.

Twenty-seven days later…

Standings in the AL East on Sept. 28, 2011

Yikes. The wheels had come off in dramatic fashion for the Red Sox in September, going 7-19 (including 1-6 against the now-contending Rays) to not only drop out of first place but also be on the cusp of, once again, not making the playoffs. Remember folks, this is 2011. Since the introduction of the wild card in 1994 (although it would be first used in 1995 following the players strike), only one wild-card team from the American League would make it through to the divisional series.

The Rays, buoyed by that run of victories over the Red Sox, went 16-10 to tie things up. They also won their last four heading into the final game, including consecutive victories over the New York Yankees at the Trop. Boston was on the road in Baltimore, where it had squeaked by the Orioles the previous night to set up a pair of decisive Game 162s. The permutations were simple.

  • Rays win and Red Sox lose: Tampa wins the wild card.
  • Red Sox win and Rays lose: Boston wins the wild card.
  • Both teams win or lose: Game 163 the following day at 4 p.m. in Tampa Bay.

Game 162

If you are in a must-win game, it makes sense to turn to your ace. For the Rays, this meant going with David Price on the mound, who at the age of 25 had already started an All-Star game, pitched in a World Series and finished second in AL Cy Young voting just the season before. But having been named Opening Day starter, 2011 had not been as kind to the southpaw, going 12-13 with a 3.35 ERA. But his recent form against the Yankees was stellar, giving up just three earned runs in the previously 15 1/3 innings.

Up at Camden Yards meanwhile, the Red Sox had little to worry about. Jon Lester was taking to the mound looking to underline his daddy status over the Orioles having gone 14-0 against them during the course of his career.

The game started well for Price striking out lead-off man Derek Jeter with a little help from Joe West (I mean, who else could be behind the plate on the night that changed baseball than Cowboy Joe?!). Earlier in the season, Jeter had joined the 3,000-hit club off Price at Yankee Stadium, becoming one of only three players to do so with a home run alongside Yankees teammate Alex Rodriquez (both doing so in New York) and Wade Boggs, who achieved his feat at, you guessed it, Tropicana Field. You see, steeped in baseball history.

However, it soon started to unravel for Price. After Curtis Granderson got the first hit of the night with a looper to center field, an error by Ben Zobrist (his sixth of the season) allowed him to score from second for the only run in the top of the first.

It’s important to point out the Yankees had nothing to play for, which was reflected in their choice of starting pitcher. Dellin Betances, who had an MLB debut to forget just six days previously against the Rays by walking four batters and hitting one to allow two runs in 2/3 of a relief inning, was entrusted with first major league start by Joe Girardi this time around. A similar story began with walks to B.J. Upton and Evan Longoria bringing Larry Rothchild, the inaugural Devil Rays manager but now Yankees pitching coach, out of the dugout. Whatever soothing words were said did the trick as Betances struck out the following two batters to get out of the inning without any damage.

It’s in the second where Price’s command issues from the first began to overwhelm him. He loaded the bases, and with two outs and a 3-2 count, Mark Texieira hit the seventh grand slam of his career to deep left-center field, his 38th home run of the year for a 5-0 lead.

At roughly the same time in Baltimore, Dustin Pedroia struck first for the Red Sox with an RBI single. J.J. Hardy’s two-run homer then put Baltimore up with a two-run homer in the bottom of the third.

After a scoreless third in Tampa, and with Price’s pitch count continuing to climb, Texieira once again found himself at the plate…and once again found himself connecting with a fastball up in the strike zone for a solo shot to deep left. With it, the air continued to be sucked out of the dome as the Yankees moved 6-0 in front. Having never previously homered off Price, Texieira had done it in consecutive at bats.

Even more critical, the Red Sox had responded with runs in the fourth and fifth innings – one via a baulk and the other thanks to Pedroia going deep. So, despite all those September woes, it still looked like Boston would be dusting themselves down and heading to the postseason.

By now, Price’s night was done after throwing 97 pitches in four innings, giving up six hits for six runs – five earned. Still, at least the Rays could trust their bullpen to dig deep, especially with talents such as Juan Cruz, who came in for the top of the fifth with a 5-0 record having given up just four home runs with an opponent batting average of .212 in his 55 appearances.

With that setup, you know what happens next: Andruw Jones shows no respect by slamming a fastball down the left field line for his 13th home run of the season and 420th of his career. 7-0 Yankees.

The rain had begun to fall in Baltimore, and it was heavy enough to force the game into a seventh-inning delay. But the Red Sox surely wouldn’t have to worry – some predictor models (FanGraphs, for reference) gave the Rays just a 1.8% of winning this game. Sure, the Red Sox had not won a game in which they had scored less than seven runs in September, but that wasn’t going to be a problem here right? Just sit back and relax in the clubhouse, watch the Rays roll over and go out to complete the job with the pressure off. Even Boston Globe writer Dan Shaughnessy thought one outcome was off the table, stating so on the NESN broadcast.

“I think the Rays are not going to win tonight. I think the one thing we have eliminated is that the Red Sox season is not going to end tonight.”

The Eighth Innings

Back at the Trop, and despite a constant rotation of pitchers as Girardi attempted to manage the arms in his team for the definite postseason run they would be on, the game fell into a familiar pattern. The Rays getting men on base in whatever fashion possible, but not bringing them around. Heading into the top of the eighth with the score still 7-0, Tampa Bay had only recorded two hits but still found a way to leave 10 men stranded.

All of that was about to change. Sidearm pitcher Boone Logan had gotten the Yankees out of a jam in the seventh but delivered a three-batter sequence that featured a Johnny Damon single, Ben Zobrist’s 46th double of the year and a Casey Kotchman hit by pitch to load the bases with no outs.

Girardi brought in Luis Ayala, the ninth pitcher of the night for the Yankees. He at once walked pinch-hitter Sam Fuld for the Rays first run of the game. News of this drifted through to Baltimore with Shaughnessy still on air – and he dismissed it with a casual, “I’m still not nervous.”

Even when Ayala plunked Sean Rodriquez next to make it 7-2, with Zobrist scoring and still leaving the bases loaded with no outs, it felt like the Yankees had control – especially when Desmond Jennings struck out. Upton followed that by lifting a ball deep into left field that allowed Kotchman to tag up on the sacrifice fly and brought Evan Longoria to the plate.

Ever since being drafted by the Devil Rays with the third pick in 2006, Longoria had been seen as the face of the franchise. In many ways, the success of the team was pinned to his back. Something Rays broadcasters Dewayne Staats and Brian Anderson noted as he came to the plate:

“It would be fun, just for fun, for it to be a long one.” (Staats)

“These kinds of situations are the one that Evan is made for.” (Anderson)

Those words have barely left Anderson’s mouth when the 0-0 pitch is delivered as Staats, a former Yankees announcer, gets to test the limits of the broadcaster’s audio system.


Some way to reach 30 home runs for the season. The problem was no more runs followed, so despite an inning that saw them send 10 men to the plate and score six runs, the Rays still trailed 7-6.

But there is a man for every moment, and the past and future hero was waiting patiently on the bench.

Who is Dan Johnson?

Joel Peralta did the job for the Rays in the top of the ninth, delivering a one, two, three inning. You might expect Mariano Rivera to be getting loose in the Yankees bullpen. After all, this would be a save situation and his arm would not have been taxed having thrown just 11 pitches the previous two days and 28 in the previous week. But again, with one eye on the postseason, Corey Wade, who had been part of the Rays minor league system earlier in the season, took to the mound as the Yankees 10th pitcher of the night.

He retired Zobrist and Kotchman to bring Dan Johnson up to the plate. Anyone imperfectly familiar with Rays history or not distracted by the tarps beginning to come off in Baltimore was asking the same question: Who on earth is Dan Johnson? Certainly, the broadcasters knew what his role would be on the night.

“Dan Johnson is coming up for one reason and one reason only – hit the ball out of the ballpark.” (Anderson)

It is easy just to look at the numbers with Johnson, who was hitting .108 with a single home run and three RBIs in 30 games, and think all hope was gone. His last major league hit was back in April. But Rays fans knew who Johnson was and so did the Red Sox, who were beginning to warm back up.

You see, back in September 2008, his ninth-inning pinch-hit home run off Jonathan Papelbon tied a game the Rays would go onto win in extra innings, keeping Boston from claiming the division lead. Tampa Bay would not relinquish first place for the rest of the season, going on to claim their first divisional title and American League pennant before falling short in the World Series.

Here though, Johnson was up against a familiar sight in Wade – the pair having been teammates with the Durham Bulls earlier in the season. Wade was able to bring it down to the potential final strike of the game, for which we’ll pass the call back to Staats.

“The 2-2 again. Johnson hits it down the right-field line. That ball is going to be fair, AND GONNNEEE. DAN JOHNSON DOES IT AGAIN!”

The Rays and Yankees were heading to extra innings, but not before Girardi brought Scott Proctor – the 11th Yankee pitcher of the night.

Good Evening, Baltimore!

For all the excitement in Florida though, the Red Sox looked likely to be holding onto their lead in Maryland meaning, at worst, they would be facing a potential Game 163. Heading into the ninth, Papelbon was heading to the mound, striking out the first two Orioles hitters to raise their win probability to 95.3%. However, doubles from Chris Davis (yes, that Chris Davis) and Nolan Reimold tied the game at 3 before Robert Adino’s bloop into left field certainly could have been caught by Boston’s star offseason acquisition.

Fresh off a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger campaign with the Rays in 2010, Carl Crawford made his way north to Fenway Park on a seven-year, $142 million deal. It was a move that didn’t pay off offensively for him, recording the worst batting average (.255) and on-base percentage (.289) of his major league career. And though he held the third-best career fielding percentage among active left fielders through the 2011 season, he certainly didn’t show it on this play. The ball clanked off his glove as he slid casually in the shallow-left field grass, and his throw home was late. It handed the Orioles a 69th victory and sent the Red Sox racing to the nearest screen to check what was going on in Tampa Bay. They’d have to hurry.

As Crawford left the field, little did he know this wouldn’t be his only impact on the winning play in a baseball game that night.

Longoria’s Landing

Back at the Trop, the game had moved onto into the 12th, and with Longoria at bat, word quickly circulated that the Orioles had completed the comeback. So, a victory for the Rays would send them to the postseason for just the second time in franchise history. One out, Longoria against Proctor, 2-2 count. Back to Staats:


Cue mass chaos on the field as the Rays players and coaching staff exited the dugout to celebrate with Longoria – arms stretched out wide as he rounded the base.

Cue chaos in the back as well as clubhouse attendants desperately found and stuck up whatever they could to protect the locker room was the inevitable beer shower that was about to ensue.

“And then how about that? An absolute bullet right down the left-field line.” (Anderson)

Ah yes – the left-field corner at Tropicana Field, just 315 feet from home plate and, possibly, one of the only stadiums in the MLB where Longoria’s shot would have, to quote Staats, GONE! The top of the barrier had been slightly lowered a few years previously to allow for one of the Rays players to make spectacular grabs and claw back some advantage considering how, at times, hopeless the team was.

That player was Carl Crawford. The same Carl Crawford who just moments previously had played a part in the Red Sox downfall and, nearly 1,000 miles away, could claim another assist on the Rays miraculously victory.

The Future Just Ain’t What It Used To Be

So how about the fall out – well, neither the Yankees nor Rays would advance past the ALDS. Tampa Bay fell in four, despite winning the first game, against Texas while New York dropped a Game 5 against Detroit.

It was in Boston where the repercussions were really felt. Becoming the first team in MLB history to have a nine-game lead in September and fail to make the postseason was always going to do that. After eight seasons in charge, Terry Francona and the front office decided to part ways – not even being the man to beat the Curse of Bambino was enough to overcome the 2011 conclusion. Soon, stories about the lax attitude around the clubhouse would ring loud and suggest that an overall culture change at the franchise was needed. But before Bobby Valentine could take them to even more desperate levels of performance, there was one other momentous change.

Having rebuilt the Red Sox, Theo Epstein also decided that he needed a change – agreeing to become the Chicago Cubs President of Baseball Operations, eventually teaming up with Rays manager from Game 162 Joe Maddon to end the Curse of the Billy Goat in 2016.

The excitement this final day drama gave (not forgetting that a similar situation was playing out in the National League as well where the Atlanta Braves let an 8 1/2-game wild-card lead disappear over the course of September to hand the St. Louis Cardinals a playoff spot) certainly caught the attention of the powers that be within the MLB. The wild card was expanded the following season to two teams, setting up a yearly one-and-done series between two sides in both the AL and NL.

Meanwhile, it’s believed that Dan Johnson has never had to buy another drink in the Tampa Bay area.

If people recognize him.

Design by Matt Sisneros. Animations by Paul Connors.