behind the jersey

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The final days of the 2011 MLB regular season brought more excitement to our living rooms than anyone could have anticipated. Whether it was the giant collapse by the Atlanta Braves and the Boston Red Sox or the impressive surges from the Tampa Bay Rays and St. Louis Cardinals, viewers were on the edge of their seats in shock over the happenings of the dwindling nights of regular season play.

Let’s begin with the downfall by the Braves in the NL. On Sept. 5, the Braves had an eight-and-a-half game lead in the Wild Card race over the declining Cardinals. Beginning and ending with a three-game sweep at the hands of the Phillies, the Braves went 7-16 from Sept. 5-28. They lost six of their last seven, including five in a row to narrowly miss the postseason.

With all that said, it took a 15-6 record over that span from the St. Louis Cardinals to push the Braves out the door and from the outside looking in at the playoffs. The RedBirds won seven consecutive series over the same span of Sept. 5-28, including a three-game sweep of the Braves and taking three of four from the Phillies in Philadelphia.

Going into the final series of the season, the Braves faced the NL-East winning Phillies as the Cards faced off with the worst team in the league in the Houston Astros. With only a one game separating the two clubs, the Braves needed just one win and a Cardinal loss to solidify their postseason spot. With the Cardinals losing to the Astros in game one of the series 5-4, the Braves had their chance slip through their fingers. The Braves dropped the game and the one that followed as the Cardinals took game two from Houston. All tied at 89-72 entering the final game of the season, the Cards went to their ace Chris Carpenter as the Braves looked for veteran Tim Hudson to answer the call. The Cardinals took care of business early as Carpenter pitched a complete-game gem, only allowing two hits and no runs in an 8-0 rout of the Astros. The Braves entered the ninth frame with a 3-2 lead and looked to be facing a one-game playoff before rookie closer Craig Kimbrel coughed up the lead and the game went into extras. The Phillies would take the lead in the top half of the 13th (4-3) and rookie Freddie Freeman fittingly grounded into a game-ending/season-ending double play.

Meanwhile, the AL race for the Wild Card was stirring up a not-so-exciting outcome at the time. The Rays and Red Sox were facing similar fates as they both entered the final game of the season deadlocked at 90-72. The Red Sox had a nine-game lead with 27 games left of the season. No problem, right? Wrong. The Boston team would lose 19 of 26 to put themselves in a position to fail in game 162. On the contrary, the Rays finished the season with a 17-10 September, which included sweeps to the Red Sox on Sept. 15-17 and the Yankees in the final series of the season.

The Rays didn’t look to be sitting in the right seat, as they were down 7-0 to the Yankees even after putting their ace David Price on the mound in the final game of the season. The Rays looked up at the scoreboard and saw the Red Sox leading the Orioles 3-2 in the seventh. As the rain came down in Baltimore for the Red Sox, the runs came out for the Rays. The Rays burst out with six runs and brought the game within one run in the eighth. Down to their last strike in the ninth, pinch-hitter Dan Johnson hit a two-strike solo shot off the foul pole in right to deadlock the game 7-7. Johnson didn’t even expect to get an at-bat. Fittingly so, the Red Sox game picked up right then and there and the Sox were also within a strike of closing off the O’s. The Orioles hit back-to-back doubles to tie the game 3-3 with two outs in the inning before Robert Andino laced a game-winning single to left. Meanwhile, the Rays found out between the top and bottom half of the 12th that the Sox had lost and Evan Longoria closed the book on the Red Sox’s season with a solo homerun in the bottom half of the 12th to win the AL Wild Card. His second homer of the game, the ball barely cleared the shortest and closest wall in the park.

Baseball plays some funny tricks on the players and fans. Even when clubs were down to their last strikes, as a fan, you could just see there was still a lot of baseball to be played. The Braves and Red Sox just didn’t have the killer instincts this time around.

The Braves “appeared” to be shutting down the Phillies in the ninth, Papelbon “appeared” as if he was going to close out the fighting Showalter’s in Baltimore and the Rays “appeared” to be getting clobbered by the Bronx Bombers in St. Pete. It “appeared” for a second that there would be, not one, but two one-game playoffs in this year’s Wild Card races. The lights were flashing, the rally caps were out and hope was still in the air. It took eight teams in the final seconds of their season to make sure that did not happen. The Cards and Rays capped off their comebacks just as the Red Sox and Braves solidified their collapse.   

When it was all said and done, it’s a beautiful thing to see the two struggling teams miss their chance and the red-hot squads make the most of their opportunities. Honestly, if either the Red Sox or Braves would have squeaked past Game 162, they would have found an immediate departure in a first-round sweep against whomever they faced. With the talent in the pool of this year’s playoffs, there is no room for weak pitching staffs or cold bats. With starters such as CC, Verlander and Lee lined up, those squads wouldn’t have stood a chance.