MLB Tampa Bay Rays

Revisiting The Rays’ Legendary 2011 Finish

In an interview, former Tampa Bay Rays super-utility man Ben Zobrist painted the picture. “B.J. strikes out, and right before he strikes out, we see some guys in an area in the outfield, and they’re in suits. They’re our front office guys, jumping up and down, going crazy and nobody else in the stadium knew why. We’re like ‘dude, something must have happened.’ B.J. strikes out, they post on the board and the crowd goes nuts. B.J. is like, ‘what the?’ He’s walking back to the dugout and is like ‘what’s going on?’ The timing was hilarious.” Ben, of course, is referring to the updated score of Boston and Baltimore, a 4-3 final, after Boston’s closer Jonathan Papelbon blew his first save of the arduous season, in the final game of it. The costly play was from an error from the usually steady Carl Crawford, during his first year in Boston, after becoming the greatest Tampa Bay Ray in franchise history. When the score updated at the Trop and the crowd went into a frenzy, they were tied 7-7 amidst the most improbable comeback of the season, which led to the most improbable playoff berth in the history of Major League Baseball. On a 2-2 pitch, Scott Proctor gave young, rising star Evan Longoria a cookie. Evan, whose 3 run shot made it 7-6 in the bottom of the 8th inning, got just enough off it to pop a screamer that had double down the line written all over it over the very short left field porch at Tropicana Field, sending the St. Pete faithful into a frenzy. 

What was originally christened “Wild Wednesday” ended on Thursday, when the wildest day in the history of baseball took place, but focusing on just the Tampa Bay Rays, Nolan Reimold scored on the Crawford error at 12:03, and Longoria fouled off that Proctor slider, not just away, but close to the opposite box, at 12:05. While the Boston game ended in regulation, it was a rain delay with the lead that held it up, but MLB was extremely adamant about playing a full game with the playoff implications at stake. The loss was the final game in Boston for future Hall of Fame skipper Terry Francona, who was at the helm when Boston ended the 86-year “Curse of the Bambino” in 2004 and then won again in 2007. The pitch hit out by Longo just snuck over, abusing Crawford’s Corner, which Tropicana implemented so that former teammate Carl Crawford could rob some more homeruns per season. It wasn’t the most well struck ball, even DeWayne Staats didn’t think he had all of it, but you can hear the elation in Staats voice when he exclaims “it is GONE.” The play-by-play has been the Rays announcer since their inception in 1998, and is still going strong. Perhaps the most warm thing about the announcing, however, is Brian Anderson’s laugh that reminds me of my great grandmother watching the Rays on a Sunday afternoon.

The Rays granted free agency to every relief pitcher prior to the 2010 season on the club, bar Andy Sonnanstine, who had his bags packed ready to start 2011 in AAA because of how awful his 2010 season was. They lost perennial 40-homerun 1st baseman Carlos Pena and franchise legend Carl Crawford. The Rays then traded Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett from their All-Star core. Wanting to retool, they signed Manny Ramirez, who almost immediately tested positive for performance enhancing drugs and retired as if on queue. Their other big move? A reunion with the not-so-legendary Dan Johnson, who had already solidified himself in Rays lore as a Red Sock killer. He had returned to the Rays in 2010 after a stint playing ball in Japan and they re-signed him on the cheap. Johnson was designated for assignment earlier in the year before being brought back in September. Everything that could’ve gone wrong for the Rays early on did go as such.

Johnson was not the best ballplayer, in fact, even the most avid of baseball fans won’t recognize the name unless they’re a Rays or Red Sox fan. He hit .200 in only 10 games with the 2008 Rays, but solidified himself as Homer-On-Demand-Dan when Joe Maddon inexplicably pinch hit him in the 2008 pennant against Boston and Dan Johnson, to the absolute stun of everybody, delivered.

In 2010? He did it again, this time in walkoff fashion.

The Rays were 9 games back of the AL Wild Card spot on September 1st, an made the largest September comeback in baseball history as The Boston Red Sox had the most historic collapse of the last two decades, probably since the 1993 San Francisco Giants. The Rays came in just looking to stretch the season one more day, when supposed ace David Price once again got shellacked around in a big game. The Yankees jumped out to a quick 1-0 lead. With 2 outs in the second, Mark Teixiera knocked a grand slam to the batters eye, which Michael Kay described as a “devastating blow for the Rays.” He hit another homerun to lead 6-0. Andruw Jones (who should be in the Hall of Fame) had his 13th homerun of the year to make it 7-0. The Rays hope were dead in the water. Until, the 8th inning.

With the Red Sox season on the line and homefield throughout the postseason already clinched, there’s zero doubt that Joe Girardi rested his best guys after 7-0 lead (Jeter, Teixiera, Granderson, Rodriguez) and that included his best pitchers. Mariano Rivera, the only player to get 100% into Cooperstown, did not pitch. With the Yankees weakest bullpen arms in the game, the Rays unloaded for a 6-run 8th inning, making it 7-6.

A Johnny Damon bloop single, Zobrist double and Casey Kotchman HBP, all off of Boone Logan, gave the Rays an opportunity,. A pinch-hit walk with the bases loaded from Sam Fuld in a battle with Luis Ayala got the Rays on the board. The “Supersam” machine was a big deal in 2011 and he and BJ Upton getting fired up down the stretch right after Kotchman’s major hot streak ended kept the Rays afloat while the core of James Shields, Evan Longoria and Ben Zobrist did the heavy lifting for the club. Sean Rodriguez was hit by a pitch to make it 7-2. Desmond Jennings struck out swinging and a BJ Upton sacrifice fly scored Zobrist to make it 7-3 with 2 on and 2 outs. Evan Longoria, take it away.

Dan Johnson had 1 homerun on the season heading into the ballgame, granted, it was a big one. It was a 3-run-go-ahead homerun in the 9th inning off of Chicago’s Matt Thornton for their first win of the 2011 campaign. Here, they were looking to just stay alive for their final win of the 2011 regular season campaign. It was a 2-2 count with 2 outs in the 9th, and Dan Johnson once again inexplicably pinch-hitting due to Joe Maddon’s gut, as Johnson was hitting under .120 on the season. The subscription the on demand service, however, hadn’t run its course just yet. The Red Sox killer had one more chance to stick a dagger into Boston in the form of a big fly, but this time it was against a different division rival. “Dan Johnson may be a Ray for life” hits differently when you realize they legitimately brought him back not-too-long ago as a knuckleball throwing farmhand. The 2011 Rays were thrift-store bought role players that needed the most unlikeliest of heroes (peak at fan favorites Jose Lobaton and Brandon Guyer in the dugout) to step up at many different times, and they did on every occasion, this was no exception. A frozen rope down the right field line, just fair, was all that was necessary.

Evan’s homerun against Scott Proctor ended it in the bottom of the 12th inning. It was Scott Proctor’s final pitch in the Major Leagues. The pitch? That pitch eliminated Boston in the most historically embarrassing fashion imaginable, and for that alone, he should be a New York Yankee icon. It ended the most wild day in the history of Major League Baseball. It was the first time in franchise history that the Rays had reached the postseason in back-to-back years. The Rays and Yankees both last in the ALDS in 2011.

In 2011, the day after, Nate Silver of the New York Times penned the following in an excerpt in his column:

“The following is not mathematically rigorous, since the events of yesterday evening were contingent upon one another in various ways. But just for fun, let’s put all of them together in sequence:

  • The Red Sox had just a 0.3 percent chance of failing to make the playoffs on Sept. 3.
  • •The Rays had just a 0.3 percent chance of coming back after trailing 7-0 with two innings to play.
  • •The Red Sox had only about a 2 percent chance of losing their game against Baltimore, when the Orioles were down to their last strike.
  • •The Rays had about a 2 percent chance of winning in the bottom of the 9th, with Johnson also down to his last strike.

Multiply those four probabilities together, and you get a combined probability of about one chance in 278 million of all these events coming together in quite this way.”

You can see a full recap of the game below:

You can see a full recap of Game 162 as a day below:

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About the author

Jameus Mooney