SAN DIEGO — Mike Brosseau was an undrafted free agent from Northwest Indiana who until Friday night was just another anonymous—albeit useful—piece on baseball's most anonymous team.
Aroldis Chapman was the Cuban Missile, the much-celebrated gazillion-dollar New York Yankees closer who helped the Chicago Cubs win a World Series, is a six-time All-Star and throws high-octane fastballs that make grown men weep.
Before Friday's series-clinching 2-1 victory for the Tampa Bay Rays, the pair had run into each other one other high-profile time, back on Sept. 1. Chapman sent one of his celebrated 100 mph fastballs whizzing toward Brosseau's head, a rudeness that caused the benches to clear and the Yankees and Rays to loathe one another even more than they already did.
Then came the eighth inning of one of the best baseball games you'll ever see, a tight, taut and pulsating winner-take-all affair that placed Brosseau in the batter's box against, yes, Chapman with one out and the score tied. Wouldn't you know it.
And what happened next was so good and utterly unbelievable that it likely will cause thousands of baseball fans in the future to claim they were in Petco Park to see it...even though, in the middle of a pandemic, only the television cameras recorded this dagger that sent the mighty Yankees home for the winter.
Brosseau fell behind 0 and 2, battled back into what would be a 10-pitch at-bat and ended both the plate appearance and the 2020 Yankees by rifling a stunning home run over the left-field fence and delivering Tampa Bay a 2-1 Game 5 shocker and a reservation in the Rays' first American League Championship Series since 2008.
"I don't know that anybody who follows the game of baseball could be happier for us, especially [Brosseau] getting revenge after he almost got decapitated," Tampa Bay reliever Pete Fairbanks said.
"You can't script it, man," outfielder Austin Meadows said. "For that to happen earlier in the year and then for that to happen at the end ... it's pretty indescribable.
"It puts all of us at a loss for words. I saw some guys tearing up. It's pretty unbelievable."
The home run came on a 100.2 mph fastball and was one final hammer blow that revealed these Yankees for what they were, a lot of sizzle but no steak. With few of the resources compared to the one-percenters in the Bronx, Tampa Bay won the AL East title this year, whipped the Yankees in eight of 10 regular-season games and then emphasized the point by winning another three of five in this division series.
In the end, Tampa Bay's organizational smarts, versatility and game-planning were too much for a New York team that ultimately was too one-dimensional: The Yankees' most direct path to winning was by outslugging you, by turning loose the brawn of Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Judge, Luke Voit and more.
That's far from a foolproof method of winning in the playoffs, when the quality of pitching is taken up a few notches. No longer do sluggers get to feast on the Nos. 4 and 5 pitchers from last-place clubs.
Take Judge. He provided the Yankees a brief 1-0 lead when he led off the fourth by dropping a homer into the "jury box" at Petco against Rays top reliever Nick Anderson. It was only Judge's fourth hit off the postseason, and three were homers. Overall, in seven postseason games against Cleveland and Tampa Bay, Judge batted .133 (4-for-30). At the time of his Game 5 homer, he was 2 for his past 27.
"Every loss is the same," Judge said on videoconference afterward. "This is another tough loss, to a division rival. I take full responsibility for that as a leader on this team. To come up short the last couple of years is tough."
That's a nice and sad sentiment from a team leader, but he needn't take full responsibility. He didn't, for example, construct this flawed rotation.
Beyond $324 million man Gerrit Cole—who was nails while working on the first short rest of his career in Game 5, holding the Rays to one run and striking out nine in 5.1 innings—the Yankees scrounged for starting pitching. Their Game 2 strategy of using rookie Deivi Garcia as an opener and then handing the ball to veteran lefty J.A. Happ was flat-out embarrassing.
Really? A team with a $109 million payroll can't come up with a decent starter that early in the playoffs? Still, manager Aaron Boone repeated after Game 5 that he had zero regrets about that strategy.
"I am sure people take it like if we started this guy we would have won the game, and that's ridiculous," Boone said.
Though Boone has been getting shredded all week over that one, let's understand one important thing here: These aren't the 1980s when you could Monday Morning Quarterback legendary skippers like Tony La Russa, Bobby Cox and Sparky Anderson. No, those days are long gone, and in today's analytics-dominated game, decisions like the Garcia/Happ one in Game 2 are organizational decisions, not any that the manager makes unilaterally.
Boone explained after that game that he had conversed with the coaching staff as well as with "the front office, and we talked through different scenarios." That means general manager Brian Cashman, his assistants and the analytics department that runs everything through computer simulations.
So, no, don't expect Boone to emerge as some sort of Yankees scapegoat for what happened here. It would be utterly disingenuous of the New York brass to do that. And remember this: The Yankees also struck out 18 times during that 7-5 Game 2 loss.
Again: Go ahead and live with power during the regular season, when you're playing half your schedule in homer-friendly Yankee Stadium and you're facing subpar pitching a fair amount of the time. No question it's become an all-or-nothing game on many nights, including in these playoffs, when more than 50 percent of runs scored have come via home runs:
But when you play Powerball, you're throwing the dice with less control than maybe if you chose an alternate path. Yes, three solo home runs were the only scores in Game 5—Judge's, Meadows' game-tying blast against Cole in the fifth and Brosseau's game-winner—but as a game that was 1-1 entered the late stages, the percentages favored Tampa Bay's more versatile lineup.
The Rays went 14-5 in one-run games this season, first in the majors in winning percentage in those situations. The Yankees went 6-7, 21st in the majors.
No small part of the Rays' one-run success, of course, is because of their expertly constructed pitching staff, both starting (Tyler Glasnow, Blake Snell, Charlie Morton, Ryan Yarbrough) and bullpen.
In fact, going back to the raw emotions on the night of Sept. 1 after Chapman riled the Rays by either headhunting or impersonating a headhunter—take your pick—a furious Tampa Bay manager in Kevin Cash unleashed a quip for the ages, warning that "I've got a whole damn stable full of guys that throw 98 miles an hour. Period." The insinuation was that the Rays could exact their own revenge, and Tampa Bay's relievers soon had that put on to T-shirts they were wearing around.
So flash forward to the eighth inning Friday and Brosseau's epic 10-pitch battle with Chapman that catapulted the Rays to a match with Houston in the ALCS.
"The gates were open, and the horses were running," Fairbanks quipped.
"Hands down, the greatest moment I've been a part of in baseball," Cash said. "There's been some great ones, but what this meant to this team, how we got there, that matchup, pretty special."
To the Rays and to Cash, Brosseau "is a perfect example of why we feel our organization is so special, him at the top, our scouting, guys pushing saying get him up here and he's going to make the most of it."
Said Glasnow: "So many players here are not guys other organizations have given up on, that's not the right word, but guys who were given a chance here, and everyone comes here and plays their heart out, and it's about winning."
Indeed, where else are you going to find a story like Brosseau's? He played college ball at tiny Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, and nobody even bothered to draft him. He had to force his way through persistence and stubbornness.
"Your guess is as good as mine" as to why nobody drafted him, Brosseau said. "Coming out of college, I thought I did what I could to get on some radars. Obviously, it didn't work out that way. It's kind of a blessing in disguise. I still have that chip on my shoulder, for sure."
Who is this guy? Well, according to the Rays media guide he won the Rock/Paper/Scissors tournament at the MLB Rookie Career Development Program in January after teammate Brandon Lowe had won the year before. And he is "obsessed" with his dog, Doc, a border collie who earned the name for being "highly intelligent." Brosseau adopted Doc at eight weeks old in 2017 when he was playing for Class A Bowling Green.
"It's just crazy," Glasnow said. "Sports, that was every storybook. That was crazy just to go have that long of an at-bat, battle that long, all the history we have, and for him to hit that bomb off of Chapman, that's just nuts.
"He's such a good dude, he grinded all year long, spare playing time, it was just phenomenal. I blacked out. It was like no, no way. It's 3-2 [count], you play the scenario in your head, a walk, a strikeout, a home run, you dance with all of them. Then he swung, and there was like a delay. People couldn't believe it.
"It's the most memorable baseball moment I've ever been a part of."
"Unreal," Meadows said.
And though Brosseau totally dismissed any thought of revenge on Chapman, you better believe the thought was lurking around in every shadow on this night.
"The baseball gods answered that one," Fairbanks said. "You watched it. I watched it. The game took care of itself on the field, the way it's supposed to.
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.