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Red Sox ultimately can't weather Rays

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Jon Paul Morosi

Jon Paul Morosi is a National MLB Writer for FOXSports.com. He previously covered baseball for the Detroit Free Press and Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He began his journalism career at the Bay City Times in his native Michigan. Follow him on Twitter.

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BALTIMORE

In 2007, the Tampa Bay Rays decided to add a little excitement to their drab, domed ballpark.

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The team concluded that an over-the-wall catch was about the most scintillating play that could occur during the course of a baseball game. So they created a notch in the left-field fence, close to the foul pole. The idea was that a lower wall — short enough for most outfielders to lunge over — would encourage more crowd-pleasing, home-run-denying catches.

The centerpiece of the Rays’ plan was that their star left fielder specialized in such feats.

His name was Carl Crawford.

They didn’t know it at the time, but that wall, and that player, would play pivotal roles in one of the most electrifying nights in the history of the sport — a drama that spanned five hours, two ballparks, and one rain delay that just might have sealed one of the most profound collapses the game has ever seen. And that was just the American League half of the story.

********************

You know how it began: The Rays and Boston Red Sox entered Wednesday in a tie for the American League wild card. If it had stayed that way until the night was done, the teams would have reported to Tropicana Field — with its notched left-field wall — for a one-game playoff on Thursday evening.

And the smart money said it was going to happen.

The pitching matchups favored Boston against the Baltimore Orioles, and Tampa Bay against the New York Yankees, in their respective regular-season finales. Both contenders put postseason-tested aces on the mound — Jon Lester for the Red Sox, David Price for the Rays. Neither the Orioles nor the Yankees had much to play for.

But then a funny thing happened: Price struggled. The Yankees took a 6-0 lead against him and then stretched it to 7-0. It looked like Tampa Bay would need to rely on a Boston loss in order to force a playoff. And that didn’t seem likely. For much of the night, the Orioles fans who arrived at Camden Yards to gawk at New Englanders’ heartache had little to cheer about.

Lester wasn’t pitching great, but he looked better than he had throughout a poor September. On short rest, he gutted his way through six innings while giving up only two runs. Dustin Pedroia, the heartbeat of the Red Sox, put his team ahead, 3-2, with a solo home run in the fifth. Boston had fumbled away a nine-game lead, but Pedroia was resolved to keep his team alive for another day.

Then it started raining.

A storm system crept into Baltimore during the middle innings and parked there for nearly 90 minutes. The game was halted just before the bottom of the seventh, at 9:28 p.m. By the time play resumed at 10:58, the out-of-town scoreboard had changed. Dramatically.

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While the Red Sox lingered in their clubhouse during the delay — with little to do other than, well, watch the Rays — Tampa Bay mounted a furious comeback. The Rays scored six runs in the eighth inning to make it 7-6. And shortly before 10:50 p.m. — within moments of the Red Sox retaking the field at Camden Yards, and with the Rays down to their last strike in the ninth — pinch hitter Dan Johnson socked the game-tying home run.

Tampa Bay 7, New York 7. And if the score itself was hard to believe, consider this: Johnson, the journeyman from Coon Rapids, Minn., entered the night with a .108 batting average this season — and one home run. On April 8.

Suddenly, the Red Sox needed to win. Or at least count on the benevolent Yankees to rescue them.

So, yes, the Red Sox needed to win.

********************

But the Red Sox were going to be fine, right? They had the lead. They had Alfredo Aceves, Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon lined up to pitch the final three innings. They didn’t need to worry about becoming one of the biggest flops in the history of North American professional sports.

Everything . . . was . . . under . . . control.

The quirky Aceves plunked two Baltimore batters in the seventh but managed to negotiate the inning without surrendering a run. Then the Red Sox were poised to tack on a crucial insurance run in the top of the eighth. Marco Scutaro slapped a one-out single to right field, bringing Crawford to the plate.

Yes, Crawford. The guy who used to make daring catches near that left-field notch at Tropicana Field. The guy who became considerably less magical upon leaving the Rays to sign a $142 million contract with the Red Sox last offseason.

But this was his chance, right? In Boston, a heroic Game 162 would have been enough for Red Sox fans to forget (or at least forgive) the underwhelming 161 that came before. Dave Roberts is cheered every time he returns to Boston, because of one stolen base in one game seven years ago. Who cares that he batted .256 for the Red Sox that year? Boston is a big-moment town. Roberts will be a legend there forevah. Crawford was afforded the same opportunity, here and now.

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And he seized it. At least, it looked like he did. Crawford sent a gapper to left field, certainly deep enough to score Scutaro from first. Only he didn’t. Scutaro hesitated between second and third base — really, he stopped running altogether — because he thought Nolan Reimold made a diving catch. Wrong. The ball rolled free to center fielder Adam Jones. Scutaro, realizing his mistake, took off again. But it was already too late.

Scutaro picked the wrong night, against the wrong center fielder, to misjudge a ball while running the bases. Jones happens to have one of the strongest throwing arms of any outfielder in the major leagues. He backed up the play, scooped up the ball, and hit J.J. Hardy with a perfect relay throw. Scutaro slid, but the broad-shouldered catcher Matt Wieters walled him off with a textbook block.

Out. The opportunity was gone. But it wouldn’t be the last time on this night that the Red Sox cursed a play in left field.

********************

When the ninth inning began, the Red Sox couldn’t have been dwelling too much on Scutaro’s blunder. They had a 3-2 lead with All-Star closer Papelbon on the mound.

Papelbon had labored hard all week — 29 pitches in New York on Sunday, 28 pitches in Baltimore on Tuesday — in victories Boston desperately needed. Now, manager Terry Francona called on him once more. It was an easy move, really, one that turned Francona into a spectator while his team’s season was decided.

And for a moment, Red Sox fans flipping back and forth between the games had to feel confident that their team would taste champagne in short order. A Yankees rally was taking shape under the dome. In the top of the 12th, they put runners on first and third with no one out. They were one base hit away from taking the lead. After that, the Yankees would get three outs — just like Papelbon was about to do — and the Red Sox would be on their way to October.

Papelbon struck out Jones to start the inning. Then he struck out Mark Reynolds. The Red Sox were one out away. Who cared that somehow the Yankees didn’t end up scoring in the 12th? Pap looked great. One more out, and the Red Sox would be assured of playing another game — even if the Rays managed to come back.

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But as the witching hour neared, the plot shifted. Chris Davis pulled a double to right. Suddenly, the Orioles had the tying run in scoring position. Manager Buck Showalter inserted a pinch runner.

The time was 11:56 p.m.

Reimold came next. He owned a .167 career average against Papelbon — 1 for 7 with two strikeouts. But Papelbon was tiring, and surely Reimold knew it. Papelbon had blended in breaking pitches to right-handed hitters the night before, but he had neither the inclination nor the elbow to do it again. He was angry, he was determined and he seemed resolved to throw the ball as hard as he could until the game was over.

Papelbon threw a fastball, and then another fastball, and then another fastball, and then another fastball, and finally, stubbornly, another fastball. Reimold whacked the last one to deep right-center, so far away that even the MVP candidate Jacoby Ellsbury couldn’t run it down. The game was tied. The orderly plan — win, wait for the Rays to lose, and fly to Texas to play the Rangers — had turned to chaos.

At almost that precise moment, the clock struck midnight.

********************

Was it really going to end like this?

The Red Sox had started the season as favorites to win the World Series, or at least the American League, after adding Crawford and star first baseman Adrian Gonzalez in an offseason spending spree. Their pitching revealed itself to be subpar, with John Lackey proving to be a profound bust, but at least a playoff berth would allow them all to save face.

General manager Theo Epstein was going to have to explain Crawford and Lackey and all the money that went into a disappointing pitching staff. Francona would need to confront the speculation that he might not return next season. But all of that would be much easier to do at the end of October, rather than the end of September.

Not now, they must have been pleading. Just one more out.

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Robert Andino, a scourge against the Red Sox throughout their ghastly month, followed Reimold to the plate. Just last week, Andino roped a bases-clearing double — off Papelbon — to beat the Red Sox at Fenway Park. Had the Red Sox won that game, this game wouldn’t have mattered. But that was the essence of this team and this month and this choke: Because the simple plays were not made, the biggest embarrassments followed.

And this was the final one: Andino lined Papelbon’s 1-1 pitch into left field. The ball was sinking, the angle was tricky, and the grass was wet. But Carl Crawford — the athlete whose talents prompted the Rays to alter their outfield wall — has a $142 million contract to make plays like that.

He slid. He missed. He recovered. He scrambled. He threw home. But by then, the Orioles were streaming out of the dugout.

“It was real close,” Crawford said. “Man on second, big lead, he probably was going to score if I played it off the hop. I had to come in and try to make a play on it. I wasn’t able to. It sunk down on me.”

The center-field scoreboard displayed the stunning news: Orioles 4, Red Sox 3. The Oriole Bird mascot paraded around the grass, proudly carrying a bright orange flag. Andino was mobbed by his teammates, as if they had just clinched the World Series — when in fact all they did was improve their season win total from 68 to 69. But they had made life miserable for the Boston Red Sox, for whom Showalter is known to have great contempt. This was their October. One fan tossed confetti, or something like it, from the upper deck.

By then, it was already Thursday morning. But the night wasn’t over.

What was happening in the Rays game, anyway?

********************

On the field, at least, the Red Sox were so engrossed in their own tragedy that it was impossible for them to keep track of the events unfolding 1,000 miles away. They could not have known it then, but their fate was about to be sealed.

Moments after the last Boston reliever trudged into the dugout, Evan Longoria dug into the batter’s box in St. Petersburg. Back in the eighth inning — what seemed like hours ago — it was his smooth swing that delivered the three-run homer that transformed a 7-3 notion into a 7-6 game. Longoria has always had the moxie that scouts love — the coolness in big spots, the easy confidence that he’ll find a way to win.

And here he had another chance. Any Red Sox fan who had kept one eye on the Tampa game, or was familiar with the player holding the Louisville Slugger, knew that this was a perfectly legitimate time to freak the hell out.

Scott Proctor, who had been out of the majors for nearly all of the 2009 and 2010 seasons, was on the mound for New York. He was the 11th pitcher for the Yankees in the game. Yes. Eleventh. The Yankees’ primary obligation was keeping their players rested and ready for Friday’s playoff opener against Detroit.

So this was one night when Mariano Rivera wasn’t going to save the Yankees, much less the Red Sox.

Proctor had been in the game since the ninth inning and had not allowed a run. But his ERA — 7.14 — suggested an inevitability about what came next: On the sixth pitch of the at-bat, Longoria’s bat sliced through the strike zone and hit Proctor’s fastball true. It took off down the left-field line — a little low, it seemed, but with the afterburn of a missile.

And because baseball cannot help but web one story into another on a night like this — if indeed there has ever been a night like this — you can probably guess where Longoria’s home run sailed over the left-field wall.

Yes. Right over the notch that they cut for Carl Crawford.

Tagged: Orioles, Red Sox, Yankees, Rays, John Lackey, Marco Scutaro, Carl Crawford, Scott Proctor, Dan Johnson, Jonathan Papelbon, Robert Andino, Jon Lester, Adam Jones, Evan Longoria, Nolan Reimold

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