October 1, 2011 [LINK / comment]
THREE "shots heard around the world"
Holy cow! What an amazing night of baseball! Like most hardcore fans, my eyes were glued to the screen until after midnight, trying to keep up with all the wild-card-deciding games at the very end of the 2011 regular season. I was already emotionally "wired" from watching the Nationals at Marlins game in the afternoon (very satisfying; see below), and I had to get up early the next morning for work. In short, I was left totally exhausted by the history-making night of baseball games, and two days later I am still in "recovery mode." I did at least manage to update the 2011 postseason scoreboard with the actual matchups, however. (Note to self: It's only a game. It's only a game.)
The situation was that the Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays were tied in the American League wild card race, and the Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals were tied in the National League race. Odds were that there would be at least one playoff game the next day. The fact that there were any tied races at all was itself quite a surprise, because both Boston and Atlanta had enjoyed large leads in their respective league races early in September, but steadily frittered them away during the last few weeks of the season. Meanwhile, both Tampa Bay and St. Louis showed surprising spunk toward the end, the former winning their final five games.
As I noted on Facebook, at one point in the evening (from 9:06 until an hour later, more or less) there was a 7-0 game in each league (Cards over the Astros, Yankees over the Rays) and a 3-2 game in each league (Braves over the Phillies, and Red Sox over the Orioles). That was a weird coincidence. Of those four games, only the Cardinals held onto their lead and won.
On the National League side, the Braves were hosting the Phillies, who have by far the best record in all of baseball and therefore had nothing to gain from a win. Even though the Cardinals' game against the Astros (in Houston) started an hour later, they grabbed an early lead with five runs in first inning, putting big pressure on Atlanta. The Braves held a 3-2 lead in the top of the ninth, whereupon their usually-reliable closing pitcher Craig Kimbrel gave up a hit and three walks. A sacrifice fly by Chase Utley with two outs got the tying run scored, sending the game into extra innings. While the Cardinals were finishing their game in Houston with an 8-0 win, the game in Atlanta remained tied 3-3 until the 13th inning. That's when Phillies catcher Brian Schneider (a former National!) drew a walk, advanced to third base, and then managed to cross home plate on a bloop single to right field hit by Hunter Pence. BANG! Not exactly a blast on par with Bobby Thomson's famous 1951 home run in the Polo Grounds, but the effect was just as deadly from the Braves' point of view. The home team was eliminated in the bottom of the 13th inning when the Braves' Freddie Freeman grounded into a double play. It was especially sad that aging veteran Chipper Jones went 0 for 5 that night, though he did get an RBI.
In the two climactic American League games, likewise, teams that were ahead going into the ninth inning came within one out of winning but then blew their leads, and likewise they both ended up losing. In Baltimore, the Red Sox got lots of hits (11) but kept leaving the runners on base, only scoring three times. While there was a rain delay at Camden Yards in Baltimore, the Tampa Bay Rays (protected from the elements by the dome at Tropicana Field) put together a highly improbable six-run rally in the eighth inning, coming within one run of the visiting Yankees. One inning later, with two outs and facing elimination, Rays pinch-hitter Dan Johnson homered into the right field corner to tie the game, 7-7. Back in Baltimore, Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon got two quick outs but then gave up two doubles and then a single to left field hit by Robert Andino that fell right in front of Carl Crawford, as the Orioles walked off with a sudden, huge upset win. BANG!! That news flash was a huge burst of encouragement for the Rays, who were batting in the bottom of the 12 inning. Only three minutes later Rays slugger Evan (not Eva!) Longoria smashed a line drive to the left field corner that just barely cleared the short fence there, giving the Rays an astounding 8-7 win over the the Yankees. BANG!!! Result: no October baseball in Boston this year.
I hope the above "non-linear narrative" helps people to make some sense out of the stupefyingly chaotic events of September 28, 2011. I'll never forget that day, though the details are sure to become foggier over time. For a detailed minute-by-minute chronology of the mind-bending, rapid-fire twists of fate, see MLB.com. As but one example of "syncronicity" on a cosmic scale, within one minute of each other, the Braves and the Orioles had base runners thrown out at home plate, which would have change the course of the games, if not the final outcomes.
And from a longer-term perspective, until this year, no team had ever given up a divisional or league lead of more than 8 1/2 games in September, but this year both the Braves and the Red Sox did it. No words of consolation could possibly make up for the agony suffered by their fans. Perhaps a bigger question is what will become of those two teams next year: one a consistent pennant contender for the past several years, and the other an up-and-coming franchise seeking to restore the glory years of the 1990s. How can the justifiably-proud teams in Atlanta and Boston regroup after their respective disasters and prepare themselves psychologically for another postseason run next year? What an enormous challenge to contemplate.
Nationals finish on a winning note
And to think I thought the big news of the day would be the triumphant final game of the Washington Nationals' 2011 season! Stephen Strasburg had his best outing since recovering from Tommy John surgery and struck out ten batters over six innings, and the Nats beat the Marlins, 3-1. Neither Michael Morse nor Ryan Zimmerman were in the lineup that day; Morse was tired (for good reason!) and Z-man had a sore hamstring. A total of 34,615 fans -- including more than a few from Washington, I noticed on TV -- showed up to mark the final major league baseball game ever to be played at Sun Life Stadium. [It was the first time the upper deck had been opened since mid-season.]
The best part of the series in Miami was Michael Morse hitting two more home runs, his 30th and 31st of the year. After hitting #27 on September 10, Morse failed to get any four-baggers for the next eleven games, putting the goal of 30 homers in jeopardy. But then he cleared the fence four times in six games, including an incredible three-run shot into the back of the lower deck at Sun Life Stadium in the top of the 9th inning of the Monday game, turning a probable 4-3 defeat into a highly improbable 6-4 victory. That amazing comeback was the real high point of the Nats' big late-season surge, a joyful moment that folks will remember for a long time. "But wait, there's more": Morse homered in the Tuesday game as well, which the Nats unfortunately lost.
The Nationals thus ended the season with a 80-81 record, coming so close to the .500 mark I could almost taste it. But at least they earned themselves third place in the toughest division in all of baseball. Not too shabby! Ending the season with 14 wins and only 4 losses created a big wave of optimism that the team is finally realizing its huge potential, and looking forward to next year, expectations are high for finishing even higher in the standings. Various players whose contracts are coming to an end have already expressed a strong desire to stay with the team, including Livan Hernandez, Pudge Rodriguez, Jonny Gomes, and Rick Ankiel. With all the up-and-coming talent in the farm clubs (e.g., Bryce Harper!), however, there just may not be enough room on the Nats' roster for those fine veterans. What an ironic situation that success has brought about! Davey Johnson also says he wants to remain as manager of the team, for which he has a deep admiration.
Ozzie to manage Marlins
Just before the game on Wednesday, it was announced that Ozzie Guillen will manage the Marlins next year, replacing 80-year old Jack McKeon, who in turn replaced Edwin Rodriguez back in June, at about the same time that Jim Riggleman quit as manager of the Nationals. Ozzie is quite a character, who is great at motivation but who also puts his foot in his mouth more than he should. (Se mete la pata en la boca. ) Kind of like former Redskins running back John Riggins! That means the Marlins will be getting a new stadium, a new geographical affiliation (Miami), and a new manager next year. Starting over from scratch!
Then there is another big piece of managerial news, which I'll get to tomorrow...
Sun Life Stadium update
I marked the occasion of the final ball game at Sun Life Stadium (a.k.a. Dolphin Stadium, etc., etc.) by making some revisions in the diagram thereof, based largely on more careful scrutiny of various photographs in print and online. The barrier between the upper and lower portions of the lower deck seems to be directly beneath the front edge of the upper deck, and given the fact that there are five rows of seats in front of that barrier behind the big scoreboard in left field, I had to increase the amount of space on that side. A variety of visual clues were simply not consistent with the official dimensions, and then I remembered that Prof. Brian Raue at Florida International University had estimated the actual left field distance to be about 328 feet (rather than 300), and right field to be 347 (rather than 345). That, plus realizing that the 58-foot backstop distance (listed in Green Cathedrals) must have referred to the original (1993) configuration provided enough leeway for me to make the necessary adjustments so that now everything fits perfectly -- with an almost audible click, you might say. Another successful piece of architectural detective work! Overall, the field is a few feet smaller than before, but the external dimensions remain the same. I also made the profile a bit taller than before, and rendered some details more accurately than before, e.g., the dugouts, which are underneath the first two rows of seats, originally had no roof over the steps.
Also, please note that the horizontal diagrams are now gone from that page. As with Mile High Stadium, which I redid several days ago, I have decided to make the football diagram in a "full-size" (i.e., not the standard 500 pixels x 480 pixels) version. I'll probably do the same thing with most other stadiums in which there is a sideways orientation which fits better on smaller computer screens. I hope that putting greater reliance on the "full-size" diagrams won't be too much of an inconvenience to fans with older computer monitors, which tend to be smaller.