In the summer of 1989, a movie starring Tom Berenger, Corbin Bernsen, Charlie Sheen and Dennis Haysbert was released about a sad sack baseball team, the Cleveland Indians, making an improbable run to the postseason.
In the movie, there was no hope in Spring Training. There were very few guys on the roster that anyone had ever heard of—even the most die-hard Indian fans.
The team started off slowly, losing games in front of very few fans. They plugged away, however, and found themselves playing about .500 ball at the All-Star Break. Then they find out the owner of the team, a former Vegas stripper, wanted them to finish last so she could move the team to Miami.
So with the added motivation, they gelled together and made an improbable run in September and found themselves tied with the New York Yankees after the season ended. They were forced to play a 163rd game to decide which team made the playoffs. And of course, in typical Hollywood fashion, they got behind, rallied to tie the game late on a home run and won it in the 9th.
Of course this could never happen for real, right?
Well, let’s take a look at what we just witnessed in St. Petersburg, Fla., this September.
The Tampa Bay Rays, who have been a sad sack team for most of their existence, had no buzz coming into Spring Training this year. Even I joked that the highlight of this season was going to be the raising of last year’s 2010 A.L. East Championship banner on Opening Day.
For a while, it looked like I was right. They started the season off by going 0-5 on their first home stand. I thought the Rays might be bad, but I didn’t know it would be that bad. But the team had lost Carl Crawford to free agency to the Boston Red Sox in the offseason.
Crawford had been arguably the best player in team history. Now he not only leaves, but signs with one of the teams the Rays have to beat in the division.
Then on top of that, they lost the entire bullpen. Not just the closer, Rafael Soriano, who signed with the New York Yankees. Not just the set-up man, Joaquin Benoit, who signed with the Seattle Mariners.
No, they had to replace the entire bullpen.
Then to top it off, they lose their biggest deep-ball threat in power-hitting first baseman Carlos Pena.
And they lose a starter who pitched a no-hitter for them the previous year in Matt Garza.
Oh, did I mention the one superstar they had left injured himself in the opening series? Evan Longoria was fighting injuries the entire first half of the season. He struggles to hit .200 and many of his long flies were being caught along the fences.
Tampa Bay hung around the .500 mark for much of the season. On occasion, they would get to maybe 10 games over, but then they would go on a tailspin and find themselves again fighting to stay above .500.
Nobody believed they had a shot at making the postseason. Probably not even the Rays themselves believed they had a chance.
Oh, they would say the right things, however.
In September, when it is time to start pushing season tickets for the next year, they were hesitant to advertise postseason ticket guarantees if people put deposits down for next season.
After all, they were nine games out on September 3rd.
There was no way they were going to catch the Red Sox or Yankees. Both of them were up in the 30 games over .500 neighborhood. The Rays were hanging around down in the 10 games over district. There is a lot of highway between those two, and there wasn’t much time to get there, either.
The only chance the Rays had was if one of the teams would meet them half way.
And then, a funny thing happened: The Red Sox threw it in reverse.
Boston started to struggle in September, and when it had to make a three-game visit to Tropicana Field, its lead had slipped to 6.5 games.
Still not really time to worry if you’re a Sox fan, right?
Well, it shouldn’t have been. After all, the Sox only needed to win one game of the three to leave with a 5.5 game lead with about two weeks to go.
No problem right? Wrong.
The Rays needed a sweep to give themselves any hope. And a sweep they got. They cut the Sox's lead to 3.5, and then the race was on.
Tampa Bay was to embark on the season’s last road trip, three games in Baltimore, four at Fenway Park and then four at Yankee Stadium. Its goal was to cut the Boston lead down to two games.
The Rays started by losing two of three to the Baltimore Orioles. Meanwhile, the Sox were winning two of three. So when the Rays got to Fenway, they were down four. A sweep and they could tie it up, but that’s asking a bit too much. If they could have won those last two games in Baltimore against the last place O’s, they could have tied it by winning three of four.
On Thursday night, the first game of the series, they ripped the Sox, 9-2. Then on Friday night, Longoria belts a two-run shot off Josh Beckett in the top of the first inning.
With ace James Shields on the mound, this is looking good, but the Sox quickly tie it back up in the bottom of the first.
The Sox go on to win a nail-biter, 4-3.
Now, the Rays are down four with only two games left against Boston. To top it off, they are still looking at seven games to play against the mighty Yankees, while the Sox have seven left with lowly Baltimore. It's looking bleak.
The Rays keep fighting and take the last two games at Fenway. The lead is now down to two games. If they can go to Yankee Stadium and keep the pace, they will have attained their goal to cut the lead down to two when they get back to Florida for the final six games.
However, Yankee Stadium is one tough place to play at. The Rays lose the first game, 5-0. Then they are to play a double header the next day.
In Game 1, they take a 2-1 lead into the 8th only to give up three runs in the bottom of the 8th with Shields on the mound. And, of course, the 9th inning is Mariano Rivera time, and the Yanks win 4-2. Then in the night cap, the Rays jump out again to an early 2-0 lead. However, the Yanks tie it 2-2, and again, rally for two in the bottom of the 8th.
This time, however, they bring in the Rays' closer from last year, Rafael Soriano, to close it out. Yanks win again, 4-2.
But while all of this is going on, the Orioles are also taking three of four in Boston, So the Rays trail the Sox only by 2.5 going into the final game of the road trip. If they can win, they make it back to Florida only down by two games.
They bomb the Yankees, 15-8.
So with six games to play, the Red Sox are now going to Yankee Stadium for three, then to Baltimore. The Rays are going home to play the pesky Toronto Blue Jays for three, and then host the Yankees.
Tampa Bay needs to gain a game in each series to force a tie.
In the first game of the home stand, it does not start well for the Rays.
David Price makes two errors in one inning, therefore opening the flood gates. Rays lose.
Meanwhile, the Sox get rained out.
So now the Rays are down 2.5 with five to play. The Sox get drilled on Saturday, 9-1, and the wheels are clearly coming off the wagon.
Tampa Bay wins its game against the Jays. In five of the previous three game series this year with the Jays, the Rays won two of three in all of them. If they can do that one more time, and the Yanks sweep the Sunday double header, it will be all tied up.
On Sunday, the Rays win a day game against the Jays, while New York beats the Sox again. So now Boston is playing a night game with the lead down to a half game. The Yanks score three in the first inning as the Sox are throwing the ball all over the place. The Sox are doomed.
The Sox rally to take a 4-3 lead. The Yanks tie it back up and the game goes to extra innings. In the 14th, Boston's Jacoby Ellsbury hits a two-out, three-run homer to give the Sox a huge 7-4 win.
So now is where it gets really weird.
The Red Sox have to root for the Yankees. Oh, the Horror! As if the collapse hasn’t been cruel enough for Sox fans, now they have to root for the Yankees. Many Sox fans refuse. It’s just not worth it to them. Others hold their noses and do it for their beloved Sox, but they don’t have to like it.
If only the Sox can just go to Baltimore and win, then they don’t have to root for the Yanks. But their team does not oblige. They lose the first game of the series, while the Rays win.
It’s finally tied.
Now there are two games to play. In Game 161, both the Rays and Sox win. So it is coming down to the final day. Each team needs to win and hope the other team loses. Otherwise, there will be a 163rd game at Tropicana Field.
Things start poorly for the Rays. They give up a first-inning run, when usually, the clutch Ben Zobrist boots a simple grounder that would have ended the inning.
From there it got a lot worse. A grand slam in the second inning put the Rays in a 5-0 hole. Two solo shots later, and the Rays are down 7-0 going into the 8th.
Meanwhile in Baltimore, the Sox and O’s are in a tight one. The Sox lead 3-2 and the game goes into a rain delay. The only hope for the Rays now is the O’s must rally. So the Sox go into the clubhouse to watch the Rays go down while they wait out the weather.
But while they are in there watching, a funny thing happened.
The Rays in their typical never-say-die fashion, get up off the deck. They score six times, the last three on a home run by Evan Longoria. It is now 7-6.
The Red Sox have to be thinking “oh no, here it comes.”
In the last two series in St. Pete, the Rays have had an inside-the-park homer by Zobrist—only the 10th time in franchise history—a triple play in a bases-loaded situation and now a comeback from seven down in the 8th.
What else can happen? How about this? Two outs, bottom of the 9th, and the Rays bring in Dan Johnson to pinch hit.
You may remember him from 2008 when he took Red Sox closer Jonathon Papelbon deep to help the rays win the East.
This year, Johnson in 30 games with the Rays was batting under .200 with one home run. He was then sent to Durham for the summer.
Now here he is, the Rays' last hope. With two strikes, he rips a shot down the right-field line. Will it stay fair? YES! HOME RUN! TIE GAME! YOU GOTTA BE KIDDING ME!!
But wait, there’s more. The rain stops in Baltimore. In the 8th, the Sox have men on first and third with no outs, up 3-2. They cannot score.
The Rays' game is going into extra innings. They strand runners in the 10th and 11th. In the top of the 12th, the Yankees have men on first and third with no outs. A grounder to Longoria at third catches the runner wandering too far. He tags the runner out trying to get back. Two outs later, and the threat is over.
Meanwhile in Baltimore, the Sox have Papelbon on to close it.
He has a runner on second with two down and two strikes on the hitter. But a shot to the gap in right center ties the game and a misplayed line drive to left ends it.
In St. Pete, with Longoria at the plate, the score goes up on the board. The crowd goes wild. Then on cue, Longoria hits one out.
No, I did not make this up! RAYS WIN!
Hollywood would not even have the audacity for a script like this. It’s too unbelievable.
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