“You know what would be really cool…”
~Baseball Gods, right before THIS all happened.
They’re calling it “Wild Wednesday,” and it was, but it was also Wild Twenty-Aught-Eleven. The Tampa Bay Rays closed the books on their 2011 campaign with one of the craziest nights in baseball history and one of the most absurd paths to the postseason ever.
At 12:03 a.m. ET this morning, Robert Andino hit a sinking line drive to left field off Jonathon Papelbon. Carl Crawford charged the ball, but it popped off his glove and Nolan Reimold dove onto home plate, giving the Orioles a 4-3 win. The first Orioles player to reach Andino chest-bumped him to the ground — maybe knocking the wind out of him — as the cameras watched the Baltimore bench fall onto his seemingly-frightened and breathless face.
At 12:05 a.m., Evan Longoria reached out — almost into the other batter’s box — to foul off a slider from New York Yankees pitcher Scott Proctor, holding the count at two balls, two strikes. Longoria exhaled deeply, puffing his cheeks like a trombone player, as Scott Proctor wound for the next pitch. It was a fastball away that got lost and asked Longo for directions.
“Two-two and line SHOT! DOWN THE LEFT FIELD LIIIIINE! THAT BALL IS GONE!!!” Rays television announcer Dewayne Staats called, presumably leaning out of the booth to watch as Longoria’s 31st homer ricocheted around behind the Crawford Cutout — a low wall added so then-Ray Carl Crawford could rob a few extra home runs.
Last night’s (and this morning’s) Rays game was beyond spectacular (for non-Red Sox fans, that is; my condolences to the northeast). It was parts Spring Training game (with the parade of Yankees pitchers), parts Little League World Series (with the Rays using nearly the entirety of their bench in key roles), and all parts unbelievable.
The 2011 Rays season has shown that though baseball is about probabilities, it is probabilities with replacement — truly any event can occur with the very next pitch, even if it happened just a few innings ago — or if it has never happened before.
The Rays season began on November 1, 2010. That was the day the reigning AL East champions granted free agency to Carlos Pena, Carl Crawford, Rafael Soriano, Dan Wheeler, Grant Balfour, Joaquin Benoit, and Randy Choate — among others. Their bullpen was gone. It was not missing a few players; it was gone. Andy Sonnanstine was suddenly sitting alone on a canister of bubble gum just beyond the right field foul line — and even he had his bags packed, ready for the demotion his 2010 stats had warranted.
So the Rays accepted 2011 will be a good-but-not-good-enough season. Calling it a “reloading” year, they traded Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett, signing the nearly-leftovers of the free agent market, Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez. At the sake of waxing historical, I will repeat for posterity what we already know and still cannot yet process: Manny tested positive for PEDs, promptly retired, and the Rays started the season with an epicly bad 0-6 run.
Two of the players meant to play major roles in replacing Pena and Crawford’s production, Manny and journeyman Dan Johnson, were not producing. Manny was gone by game six and Johnson hit a wRC+ in the negatives (not sub-100, but negative) for the first two months before going Triple-A. Some projection systems had forecast 20 to even 25+ home runs for Dan “Pumpkin” Johnson in the offseason. Well, he finished the year with two. But those two meant a whole lot.
I was there for the first homer: A ninth inning, three-run homer off Matt Thornton, sailing into a chilly Chicago evening and sealing win number one for the Rays’ 2011 season. Home run number two, which Johnson hit last night in the bottom of the 9th (two outs, 2-2 count, naturally), kept that same season alive, tying the game 7-7.
Johnson, nicknamed Pumpkin by fans because — like the Great Pumpkin of Charlie Brown fame — DanJo arises from seemingly nowhere to do something magical only to disappear shortly thereafter, hit a crucial ninth inning homer off Jonathon Papelbon en route to the Rays’ 2008 World Series appearance. And just like that year, Johnson has played a small, yet pivotal role in helping this little $41M team find 91 wins and a playoff season.
Consider the fortuitously-timed hot streaks of marginal and defensive players. When Manny retired, Sam Fuld got hot; when Fuld went cold, Casey Kotchman hit an extended hot streak; when Kotch’s magic ran out, B.J. Upton caught fire:
Overlapped wOBAs from Fuld, Kotchman, and Upton.
Had Upton and Fuld both heated up in the same month — or the same games — maybe this team isn’t 9 games back, but 10 or 11 in the late going. If Kotchman gets cold in July instead of August, then maybe the the Rays are 12 or 13 back.
Yes, the team lived in the muscle-bound arms of Ben Zobrist, Evan Longoria, James Shields, and David Price. They also profited immensely from the blundering, unprecedented finish of the Boston Red Sox. But, much like how the Rays defied the probabilities last night, swinging a 99% certain loss into a 100% playoff ticket, employing odd role players like Elliot Johnson and John Jaso at opportune moments, the Rays managed to find just enough talent and luck to win big.
Last night, a utility man with a .284 career wOBA singled off an elite closer with a 1.53 FIP on the season. And at the same time Andino was defying the odds — being the 1 in 100-to-1 — the Rays were obliterating not just the odds of their base-states, but the expectations of their peers, the forecasts of the projections, and the musings of the gurus.
In yet another predictably phenomenal piece, Nate Silver did a little napkin math to find out what kind of crazy probabilities we encountered in the last 30 days and 24 hours:
The following is not mathematically rigorous, since the events of yesterday evening were contingent upon one another in various ways. But just for fun, let’s put all of them together in sequence:
•The Red Sox had just a 0.3 percent chance of failing to make the playoffs on Sept. 3.
•The Rays had just a 0.3 percent chance of coming back after trailing 7-0 with two innings to play.
•The Red Sox had only about a 2 percent chance of losing their game against Baltimore, when the Orioles were down to their last strike.
•The Rays had about a 2 percent chance of winning in the bottom of the 9th, with Johnson also down to his last strike.
Multiply those four probabilities together, and you get a combined probability of about one chance in 278 million of all these events coming together in quite this way.
And so we rip back the red curtain to reveal Baseball, roaming free of a cage to the awe of the spectators. A 278,000,000-to-1 event transpired last night — and that was just in the AL. Fools say we suck the marrow from the game with a deluge of numbers, but without this, how can you really, truly appreciate the majesty of what just happened?
(If you’re not a Red Sox fan, naturally.)