Seasons change in a matter of minutes

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- For the way the 2011 regular season ended Wednesday night, maybe the electricity and the surprise and chills and despair and surrealism would have been identical had the Tampa Bay Rays advanced to their second straight postseason by beating any opponent.

After all, the Rays spent much of the night in the worst state of psychosis, trying to process how their season could end without a fight, so flatly, being shut out at home on only two hits through seven innings. Yet they ended it in the delirium of beer showers and champagne popping and plastic strewn over lockers, trying to explain without much success but gigantic smiles how their dead carcasses are still alive.

But if it is at all possible for the Rays' stunner to be more than just the largest comeback at so late in the calendar in the history of the game, thanks to Evan Longoria's playoff-clinching home run, it actually was for no other reason than the opponents, and the characters involved.

The sequence of events Wednesday evening may have created the greatest, most intense night of baseball in memory, proof that despite the ratings and rankings and revenues, the sport -- when played at its highest level -- is unmatched for tension. For the Rays, the night of baseball was an intensely personal experience, a microcosm of what this franchise is, where it is, and how it will survive.

Follow the clock Wednesday night, from early in the evening when the Rays were being pushed into fishing season by an unheralded string of Yankees minor leaguer pitchers named Betances, Kontos and Laffey while David Price -- who stood here three years ago and sent the Red Sox home in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series -- gave up two long home runs to Mark Teixeira and was down 6-0 after four innings. Price had nothing and the Rays were going down. Even their manager, Joe Maddon, thought so.

"We were dead," he said. "You couldn't write this. You couldn't say it because no one would believe you. I know I try to attempt to sum things up, but I can't."

Then, soon after Price was sent packing, seemingly for the year, it was 7-0 Yankees, while the Red Sox led 3-2 in Baltimore and the Orioles were leaving runners all over the place. No more one-game playoff here against the Red Sox on Thursday. Nothing more than the moral victory of making a good push and coming up a buck short. Many in the paid attendance of 29,518 headed for the exits, an odd sight because fans rarely come here, anyway.

The Yankees were already going to the playoffs and were knocking the Rays out, opening the door for the Red Sox to undo a titanic September fold with a salving playoff run. Big money would win out over big plans and big heart -- again.

"A lot of us were just looking up at the scoreboard and rooting for Baltimore," Longoria said.

Then it started raining in Baltimore, and an amazing night of baseball began to take shape. The Red Sox went into the clubhouse, watched the Doppler unconcerned because entering the eighth inning the Rays had two (two!) hits. They watched Luis Ayala walk in the first Rays run, then hit Sean Rodriguez for the second.

But then B.J. Upton's sacrifice fly made it 7-3, and Longoria hit a three-run homer.

That made it 7-6. The Red Sox watched the comeback. And then it stopped raining in Baltimore.

"I was just thinking it was my last at-bat of the season," Longoria said.

In the bottom of the ninth with no one on and two out, Maddon sent Dan Johnson to the plate. Johnson has played 993 games in the minor leagues. "Who's counting?" he would say later, after being doused with champagne. He was hitting .108. He hadn't had a hit since April 27.

But Johnson has a knack for magic, like that time three years ago in September when he was called up and faced Jonathan Papelbon in Boston and homered. Here, one strike away from vacation against Corey Wade, Johnson ripped a line drive over the wall in right field for a home run.

"It was a rerun of 2008," Longoria said. "There's no specific explanation."

Watch the clock. It is the 12th inning in St. Petersburg, the ninth in Baltimore. Almost simultaneously Big Money was about to win out again. The Red Sox were an inning away from a flight to Texas. Brandon Gomes gave up a single to Greg Golson. Jake McGee replaced him and gave up a single to Eric Chavez. Yankees at the corners, none out.

Then Golson was caught off third by Longoria on Jorge Posada's grounder. Chris Dickerson struck out and Brett Gardner grounded out, setting the stage for the bottom of the 12th.

In Baltimore, Papelbon, breathing fire and purpose, struck out Adam Jones and then Mark Reynolds, who had no chance. In the press box at Tropicana Field, Orioles-Red Sox was on the television and the two games were synched nearly perfectly, pitchers moving into their windups in tandem. With two out, Papelbon gave up a double to Chris Davis. One strike away from victory, he then gave up a run-scoring double to Nolan Reimold. Tie game in Baltimore.

In St. Pete, Upton stepped in to hit against Scott Proctor. He stepped out because the crowd was roaring over Reimold's double. Then he struck out.

Longoria was next, and he stepped out twice because the crowd was reacting to the Robert Andino's game-winner in Baltimore, a base hit to left that beat Boston. The Red Sox players walk into the visitors' clubhouse at Camden Yards just in time to see Longoria take Proctor's 2-2 pitch over the short fence in left.

It was over. In the span of three minutes, what couldn't be settled for 161 games was settled. The Red Sox were one strike away from the playoffs; the Rays one from extinction. All was reversed. Even in the clubhouse, professionals who have seen it all, stood and stared at each other because they had never seen this, a virtual split-screen pennant race.

For the Rays, victory couldn't have been more personal. They beat New York to earn a playoff chance and knocked out Boston with the same punch. They lost to Big Money over the winter. Rafael Soriano went to the Yankees, and it was Soriano who gave up Matt Joyce's three-run homer in Tuesday night's must-win for the Rays. Dan Wheeler went to Boston.
So did Carl Crawford, for seven years and $142 million, and it was Crawford who could not corral Andino's liner.

It was the Rays who had toppled one of the two giants of the AL East, the two teams that keep them down, both in the standings and on the balance sheet. A day earlier, Rays executive Matt Silverman pointed at the Rays' 2010 AL East banner above the left field seats and said it was more important than the 2008 pennant because, Silverman said, "We beat those two. Both of them."

Rays players sprayed beer on their fans, one whom held up a sign that read:


    And the fall of Red $ox Nation

"I know it's big," Maddon said, "but I'm not there yet. I haven't wrapped my mind around it. We've been too busy trying to do this. I'm aware. I'm totally aware of the circumstances and the place in baseball history, but right now, I'm not quite there yet."

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com. He can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/hbryant42.