Season in review: Believe the impossible

AP Photo/Eric Gay

The thing they tell you about baseball is that it’s a marathon and not a sprint. This isn’t a game for sudden changes, rash decisions or riding a hot streak for the whole season. This is a game where only collapses are noticed, and even then they are usually a long, drawn-out process.

Yet, on one late, rainy September night, the marathon all but finished, it’s those precious last few hours that will decide everything. Will the Red Sox and Braves complete historic collapses? Will the Rays and Cardinals complete miracle runs?

We believe we’re in for a wild night. We want to believe we’re in for a wild night. Even if such anticipation often ends in predictable disappointment, maybe tonight won’t, maybe the possibilities that are there will come to pass. Maybe the Orioles will beat the Red Sox (again), maybe the Rays will come back against the Yankees, maybe Craig Kimbrel will blow the one save that really matters. We believe because baseball tells us it’s OK to believe, because Kirk Gibson showed us that you don’t need both legs to hit, and Jim Abbott showed us that you don’t need both hands to pitch.

We believe because we can.

* * * *

The season starts in March.

That alone should be telling; in the 85-year history of the old Yankee Stadium, no game was ever played in March.* Three seasons into the life of the new Yankee Stadium, and a crowd wearing so many layers it ends up waddling more than walking, packs into the concourses before the NCAA has yet to crown a men’s basketball champion.

The Yankees aren’t the only team to open on March 31; it’s a new thing they’re trying this season so that maybe the World Series ends before Halloween, the way it used to when you were still a child.** Still, while they’re introducing the 2011 Yankees, there’s some feeling this is a second-place team -- they missed out on Cliff Lee, missed out on Carl Crawford and signed Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon, Russell Martin and Eric Chavez. There isn’t the certainty here there is in Boston, or in Philadelphia.

It’s perhaps strange to think the biggest move of Philadelphia’s offseason was the acquisition of one single pitcher. Sign Cliff Lee. Keep everyone healthy. Win. It’s a simple formula, and it works well enough to produce the best record in the majors, the only team with 100 wins.

Boston, though, is a different story.

*There was supposed to be a March opener in 2008, but the weather intervened.

**Although the World Series has kept happening at a later and later date, November baseball itself first came about after a week of the regular season was lost in the fallout of 9/11.

* * * *

If you lose the first game of a baseball season, it’s no big deal. Sure, you prefer to start on a high note, but even the best baseball teams in history have lost close to 50 games. Things happen. A pitcher has a bad day, the offense struggles to hit in the cold damp of early spring. So when the Red Sox lose their first game, there are no alarm bells ringing, no bridges or ledges to check. If Carl Crawford goes hitless in four at-bats -- with the hat trick -- you shrug your shoulders and wait for tomorrow.

When you lose the next game, however, and the game after that, and the one after that, and so on until you’ve been swept in the first two series you’ve played, you’ve gone from unconcerned to outright panic. It takes a while in baseball to notice trends; sabermetricians and statistics buffs will tell you that the ultimate sin in baseball analysis is falling victim to the fallacies of small sample size. One good start cannot outdo a season of poor ones (ask A.J. Burnett), and one poor start cannot undo a season of good ones (ask Justin Verlander). Oh-and-one isn’t a concern, but 0-6 is, and by the time you get to 2-10, you’ve become familiar with the maxim: You can’t win a pennant in April, but you can lose one.

By the time Sept. 28 arrives, there’s one overriding question regarding the Red Sox: What if they had won just a few more games in April? What if they had won just one more game during those long nights?

* * * *

The Red Sox aren’t the only team to struggle out of the gate.

The season’s already seven games old by the time the Rays take their first lead.

* * * *

On April 2, Erick Almonte plays in a major league baseball game. It’s his first major league game since 2003.

He has four at-bats, and in three of them, he doesn’t reach base. The other at-bat is a home run.

Bartolo Colon returns from a year out of the majors. He pitches 164.1 innings for the Yankees (the team with the endless payroll signs him for just $900,000) and posts a 4.00 ERA. The last time he threw even 100 innings in one season? 2005.

If the Yankees strike gold with Colon, what do the Giants find with Ryan Vogelsong?

In the six years from 2001 to 2006, Vogelsong, pitching for the Giants and Pirates, had just one season with an ERA under 5.00, and just two with an ERA under 6.00.

In 28 starts with the Giants in 2011, the 33-year-old Vogelsong’s ERA will finish at 2.71.

It’s the fourth-best ERA in the National League.

* * * *

On April 30, for the White Sox, Adam Dunn is hitting .160/.300/.267, with two home runs. It’s a slow start, but other players have April slumps too -- Nick Swisher hits just .226/.340/.286 in the season’s first month.

Swisher will ultimately recover from his slump, and end the season with an .822 OPS. It’s not an All-Star season, but it’s perfectly respectable, the type of season some teams would kill to have from just one of their hitters.

Adam Dunn, however, does not recover.

His final line of .159/.292/.277 is, in some respects, worse than his April line, a historically bad season for a hitter, especially a player known for perennially finishing with 40 home runs ends the season with just 11.

* * * *

Dunn doesn’t hit home runs in 2011, but plenty of other players do.

Jose Bautista, as if to prove that he’s not a one-year aberration, does a Barry Bonds impression in the first half and finishes the season with 43 home runs. Curtis Granderson has 41. Mark Teixeira and Matt Kemp both have 39.

Everyone knows Derek Jeter will get his 3,000th hit in 2011, they just don’t know when. They do know, however, that the 3,000th hit won’t be a home run.

Except, it is.

What’s more, the fan who catches it, Christian Lopez, who can ask for the world in return for that ball, asks for absolutely nothing.

Then, on another night: Jim Thome hits his 599th and 600th home runs in the same game, giving his fans in Minnesota a lone night to cheer.

* * * *

The last time the Pirates finished a season with a winning record was 1992 -- when a man named William Jefferson Clinton was on the Democrats’ ticket for the White House.

The Pirates had a rookie pitcher that year who did quite well, with an 8-1 record and an ERA of 2.14 in 13 games started. His name? Tim Wakefield.

In 2011, when Tim Wakefield will notch his 200th win, there are three separate occasions in July, where, for a total of five nights, the Pirates go to sleep in first place.

The Pirates are undone by a 19-inning marathon with the Braves, a game that Scott Proctor actually wins, a game that, believe it or not, doesn’t have a position player pitching for either team, a game that sees a combined 39 runners left on base ... a game that ends on a blown call at home plate.

Pittsburgh fades into the quiet summer night. The Braves linger. For a little while, anyway.

* * * *

After losing 97 games in 2010 the Diamondbacks are branded underachievers. That young crop of Justin Upton, Stephen Drew, Miguel Montero, et al, has failed to mature. The bullpen is so noxious that someone jokes that the next time the phone rings, the bullpen coach should just let it go to voicemail*.

Kirk Gibson, who might know a little something about believing, somehow figures it out. Or, rather, if he doesn’t figure it out, it’s under his watch that his players do.

Arizona starts to win, and then they win again, and again, and when San Francisco can’t overcome injuries to Buster Posey and Brian Wilson, the Diamondbacks sense an opportunity.

They bite.

*via @Haudricort

* * * *

After 2010, one might think the Diamondbacks learned their lesson about bullpens.

Relief pitchers are supposed to have short lifespans.

They are supposed to come up, throw fire, be untouchable for a season or two, be emphatic in their celebration, and then fade into a sort of obscurity, only being remembered for that one World Series they helped their team win -- or, more often, lose.

They are not supposed to stick around long enough for 600 saves.

Yet, on a September afternoon, in what has been an unlikely season for the Yankees, a season of roster patches and Curtis Granderson home runs, Mariano Rivera stands on the mound, notches save No. 2 602, the all-time record, and celebrates with a handshake and hugs with his teammates.

Jorge Posada has to push the Yankees’ closer back to the mound, and force him to enjoy the adulation he’s earned.

* * * *

If only the Red Sox had Rivera.

If only the Braves had Rivera.

On Sept. 5, the Red Sox (they don’t know it yet, but The Collapse has already started) have a seven-game lead over Tampa Bay for the AL wild-card spot. The AL East, with the Yankees leading by just 2.5 games, is not out of reach.

On Sept. 5, the Braves lead the Giants and Cardinals by 8.5 games for the NL wild-card berth. The Phillies are too good for the NL East title to be realistic, but the Braves have such a cushion on the wild-card that the playoffs seem inevitable.

Baseball, though, is a marathon, and no one sees trends right away. The Red Sox lose a game here, the Braves lose a game there.

It’s OK, though -- it would take a miracle for the Cardinals or the Rays or the Giants or the Angels to pose any sort of threat. The Rays waited too long to call up Desmond Jennings and Matt Moore. The Cardinals are too busy worrying about Albert Pujols’ impending free agency. It can’t happen.

You know it can’t happen. There’s no possible way. It’s just a September slump.

Until it’s not.

Until you look up one late September day and realize the Red Sox need the Yankees to beat the Rays, not just so that their cushion doesn’t get any smaller, but instead, for their very survival.

Until you look up one late September day and realize that the Cardinals might actually have an easier time beating the Astros than the Braves will have beating the Phillies.

Until you look up one late September day and realize that barely averaging three runs a game for a month, even in a year of depressed offense, isn’t going to cut it when the other team has Albert Pujols (and even when they don’t).

Until you look up one late September day and realize that the Yankees, having clinched everything there possibly is available to clinch in the regular season (playoffs, division, home field), the Yankees have nothing to play for except the pride of not seeing the Red Sox in the playoffs, and the Rays now have everything on the table.

Until you look up, and believe.

* * * *

So we believe.

We believe even as the Braves are just two outs away.

We believe even though the Yankees lead 7-0 lead in the eighth inning.

We believe even though the Red Sox have the Orioles down to their last strike.

There’s no Kirk Gibson one-legged home run on this night, no Jim Abbott no-hitter, but we don’t need them.

We have 13 innings in Atlanta, 12 in Tampa and nine in Baltimore, maybe the most dramatic of all.

We get a two-strike, two-out, bottom-of-the-ninth pinch-hit home run from Dan Johnson. We get a two-strike, two-out double from Nolan Reimold off Jonathan Papelbon.

We get a Robert Andino single, a Carl Crawford misplay, and an Orioles win, and then, not five minutes later, we get an Evan Longoria home run just to the right side of the left-field foul pole. A cheap shot, one might argue on another day. Not tonight.

This is the night of the baseball miracles. A month long in the making, a month long to notice, but tonight they’re here, right before our eyes.

We believe because it’s real.

* * * *

Matt Moore has had one career start. Just one, and he’s tapped to start Game 1 of the ALDS for Tampa Bay, with his team on the road, with his team facing the offense of the Texas Rangers, at Arlington. The Rays can’t possibly win this game. Moore can’t possibly succeed with this sort of pressure.

Until he does.

One game won’t make a career, but we believe in courage.

Josh Collmenter’s a rookie, too. He’s a rookie, and he’s on the mound with his team down two games to none. Win or go home, kid, it all hangs on you.

Seven innings, two hits, one run, and the Diamondbacks will live to play another game.

We believe in hope.

Jorge Posada is not a rookie.

The last season of his contract has been an unmitigated disaster, on the field and, for a time, off it, but Posada battles.

His .429/.579/.571 batting line in the ALDS is the best of any Yankees’ hitter. Better than Robinson Cano or Granderson, better than Jeter or Alex Rodriguez, better than Teixeira or Swisher.

We believe in fight.

The Phillies sail through the regular season. Pitching and more pitching, a Roy Halladay-Cliff Lee-Cole Hamels starting three is a dream rotation; the Phillies get spoiled even further with Vance Worley and the best team ERA in the majors.

With that staff, the last image of their season isn’t supposed to be Ryan Howard clutching his ankle after rupturing his Achilles, but that’s what it is.

We believe in unexpected.

The Brewers aren’t afraid of Nyjer Morgan or Yuniesky Betancourt or Mark Kotsay, even when other teams shy away, even when the narrative is about Morgan’s character or Betancourt’s defense or Kotsay’s (lack of) hitting. They aren’t afraid to trade for Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum, even if it costs their entire farm system.

They have one season left to try to get Prince Fielder a World Series ring, the same Prince Fielder who hits a home run in the All-Star Game that will guarantee home-field advantage for whichever National League team makes it to the World Series.

If there is a season for the Brewers, this is supposed to be it.

We believe in going all-out.

Justin Verlander’s year has been so good that the debate isn’t whether or not he should win the Cy Young; it’s whether or not he should win the MVP. Yet, even with that performance, the move that puts the Tigers over the edge, that moves them from possible AL Central winners to probable American League contenders, is a trade for a pitcher who was 3-12 with a team that would go on to lose 95 games.

It isn’t Verlander to whom Leyland gives the ball in Game 5 of the ALDS; it’s Doug Fister.

We believe in second chances.

The World Series runners-up from 2010 have something to prove in 2011, and even while all the attention is on the Red Sox and the Phillies and the Yankees and the Brewers, the Rangers are still there, winning game after game.

This, we are told, is the Year of the Napoli. The Angels favored Jeff Mathis -- he of the career .194/.257/.301 batting line -- so Mike Napoli went to Texas instead, went to Arlington and posted a 171 OPS+ for the season, and then he kept hitting in the postseason, too.

Josh Hamilton’s story is such that if you pitched it as a Hollywood script they would tell you no, things like that don’t happen, that you can’t come all the way back from drug and alcohol problems to hit 28 home runs in the first round of the Home Run Derby in 2008 and then lead your team to the World Series in 2010 and 2011, that you can’t hit the extra-inning, go-ahead home run in the 10th inning of Game 6, and yet this is exactly what happens.

We believe in redemption.

The Cardinals are 10.5 games out in August and 8.5 back in September. Adam Wainwright doesn’t throw a single pitch for them all season. Ryan Franklin loses his job as the team’s closer and on June 17 Chris Carpenter is 1-7 with an ERA of 4.47. Matt Holliday loses his appendix and busts his finger; Albert Pujols breaks his wrist.

The Cardinals shouldn’t make the playoffs. They shouldn’t make the Phillies go five games, and then win because of Carpenter's complete game shutout (not when Tony La Russa’s managing, anyway). They shouldn’t beat the Brewers in Milwaukee, and they certainly shouldn’t have home-field advantage in the World Series.

They shouldn’t, but they do, and then they do more.

Albert Pujols echoes Reggie Jackson and Babe Ruth, hitting three home runs in one World Series game, arguably the best single-game offensive performance in postseason history.

In Game 6, the Cardinals are twice down to their last at-bat, twice down to their last strike, twice one pitch away from losing the World Series. Each time, the Cardinals come through, as though the idea of losing the game never occurs, and a team that loses its ace before Opening Day forces a Game 7 in the World Series.

Baseball is a marathon, not a sprint. This is what they tell you. One game can’t tell you anything, one game can’t make or break you, but this is what happens in the World Series. One game is all that stands between St. Louis and a World Series championship that few, if any, expected.

One game, and the Cardinals have Chris Carpenter on the mound.

We believe in impossible.

Rebecca Glass works for ESPN Stats & Information and is a contributor to ESPN New York's Yankees blog.