Yankees fans — or at least, the ones who wanted to see Boston complete their collapse regardless of whether it was in their own team's best interest — had been hoping this day would come for weeks. The odds of the Red Sox blowing their Wild Card lead weren't necessarily great — as recently as last Friday, they had a 95.2 percent chance of making the playoffs — but as the Red Sox saw what had been a nine-game lead following the games September 3 evaporate, their chances of this day becoming a reality kept on improving. Still, the way the Rays finally passed them last night to win the Wild Card on the last day of the regular season? That was more entertaining than any Yankees fan ever could have imagined.
Consider this improbable series of events:
• The Red Sox and Rays entered the day tied for the Wild Card lead, and by the end of the second inning, the Rays trailed the Yankees 5-0, thanks in large part to a Mark Teixeira grand slam. This meant that not only were Boston fans cheering for the Yankees, they were cheering for a player their team courted for the 2009 season before he signed with their biggest rival.
• In Baltimore, meanwhile, the Red Sox took a 3-2 lead in the fifth on Dustin Pedroia's solo home run, and the score would still be 3-2 while rain delayed the game for an hour and 25 minutes in the seventh. The Rays had dug themselves such a deep hole that it appeared that even if Boston blew that lead, they'd play a one-game playoff today. And if they could protect that one-run lead, they'd hang on and win the Wild Card.
• Back in Tampa, the Rays scored six times in the eighth, and still they were down to their final out an inning later, when pinch hitter Dan Johnson, with two strikes against him, tied the game with a solo home run. (Via Nate Silver, Johnson had just one hit in 45 at-bats this year with a two-strike count.) And surely Red Sox fans understood that Joe Girardi wouldn't be using his A bullpen with the playoffs just two days away.
• And since Girardi had already used up much of his B bullpen as well, he inserted Scott Proctor in the tenth inning — pretty much a nightmare scenario for Boston fans, who saw on Sunday night the type of thing that happens when Proctor pitches.
• But while everyone waited for the inevitable to happen in Tampa, Boston took a one-run lead into the ninth. Jonathan Papelbon struck out the first two batters, then had two strikes on Baltimore's Chris Davis. But he allowed a double to Davis to put the tying run in scoring position, then gave up another double to Nolan Reimold to put the go-ahead run in scoring position.
• Then the next batter, Roberto Andino, hit a game-winning single hit to left off the glove of disappointing free-agent signing Carl Crawford. Crawford, by the way, is a former Tampa Bay Ray. It's hard to imagine a worse ending to the Red Sox game (or, if you're a Yankees fan, a more entertaining ending).
• And so by the time Evan Longoria batted in the bottom of the twelfth — a half-inning after the Yankees failed to score despite having runners on first and third with nobody out — everyone at Tropicana Field knew what had happened in Boston. (Apparently even the Yankees watching in the clubhouse celebrated when Papelbon blew the save.) And so they also knew what it meant when Longoria snuck a ball just inside the left-field foul pole: Improbably, the Rays had won the Wild Card, and the Red Sox had not.
Last night really was one of the best nights of baseball in recent memory, between the games in Baltimore and Tampa, Atlanta's crushing loss to the Phillies, and Chris Carpenter's two-hit shutout for the N.L. Wild Card-champion Cardinals. (Never has MLB.tv's option to watch four games at once come in handier.) We suspect that Rays fans and Cardinals fans are happiest of all this morning, but boy, Yankees fans aren't far behind. This doesn't exactly make up for 2004 — those were totally different circumstances with even higher stakes — but that the 2011 Red Sox will forever be remembered for one of the sport's biggest September collapses is pretty wonderful, and still more than a little stunning.
And of course, it's not just because it's the Red Sox that collapsed, but that the much-hyped 2011 Red Sox that collapsed. Here, for example, is a NESN headline from January: "2011 Red Sox Will Challenge 1927 Yankees for Title of Greatest Team in Major League History." Oops! Oh, and here's another from NESN, from just a week ago: "Red Sox Will Still Make Playoffs, But Clinching to Set Up Rotation Now Top Priority." Oops again!
This seems like a great place to remind you that before the season, 45 out of 45 ESPN "experts" picked the Red Sox to win the American League East. One of those experts was Aaron Boone, the man responsible for another punch in the gut of Red Sox Nation. This one's not quite as sweet: After all, that one ended with the Yankees going to the World Series, and this one ended because the Yankees blew a 7-0 lead, and it still feels weird to cheer for that. But there's still something very satisfying about the Yankees, who played a big part in the Wild Card race over the final two weeks, opening the playoffs on Friday, while the Red Sox try t0 figure out exactly how the heck this happened.