The final day of the 2011 regular season was shaping up to be an epic one, but I could not have scripted a better finish if I tried.
Here was the sequence of events:
The Orioles down to their last strike, Nolan Reimold clocks a Jonathan Papelbon heater into right center for a ground-rule RBI double to tie the game. Robert Andino follows with a line shot that falls just under the glove of a diving Carl Crawford, allowing Reimold to score the winning run.
After the celebration in Baltimore between first and second base, I switch over to the Yankees-Rays game in the bottom of the 12th inning. With the count even at 2-2, Evan Longoria shoots a laser that barely clears the left-field wall, punching Tampa Bay's ticket to the postseason.
Need we any greater examples of baseball's magnificence?
In both of the games mentioned above, the victor did not own a lead until the very last pitch, and each one was a strike away from defeat.
In the National League, the Phillies' 4-3, 13-inning win over the Braves knocked them out of the playoffs after the Cardinals' 8-0 win over the Astros earlier in the day.
Baseball is full of historic late-season collapses, but 2011 earned its distinction with a pair of breakdowns in the Wild Card race. Atlanta and Boston each entered the final month of the season with a lead of more than 8 games in the Wild Card standings, but by the 162nd game they fell into ties with St. Louis and Tampa Bay, respectively. Such an occurrence was crazy enough, and it seemed as if at least one of the two races would result in a 163rd contest.
The walk-off gods were having none of that.
In the end, the baseball universe righted itself. After all, a team that opens the season 2-10 isn't supposed to make the playoffs (only three teams ever have), and it's no surprise that Crawford, who was very un-Crawford-like during his first season in Beantown, failed to make the play that sealed the Red Sox' fate.
But hand it to the Cardinals and Rays for playing their butts off in September after wallowing in mediocrity for much of the year. These are the kind of late surges that lead to world championships.
Speaking of hot finishes, I need to give props to the O's, who I still consider my second favorite major league team. They closed out the season with 11 wins in their last 17 games, and turned Boston's mighty roar atop the AL East into a whimper in that final series. Say what you want about the 14 consecutive losing seasons, but there's no sweeter ending than a walk-off win over the Red Sox. Hero Andino put it best:
"End the season like this, [to] make Boston go home sad, crying, I'll take it all day."
Take it all winter, guys.