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Mayer never imagined he could despise a team as much as the Yankees. "For a long time I rooted for the Red Sox because they had the best chance to beat the Yankees," Mayer says. "Their fans came to Baltimore and were fun to be around. But the last few years they've become as obnoxious as the Yankees'. They're unbearable now." As tickets at Fenway grew scarce, Red Sox fans flocked to Camden Yards in greater numbers, nicknaming it Fenway South. Mayer and three buddies went to Game 162 with one purpose in mind, the same one driving their hometown team. "We wanted to annoy the Red Sox," Mayer says.
The baseball season has traditionally finished on a Sunday afternoon, but this year the final games were moved to a Wednesday night. Early in the afternoon MLB Network president Tony Petitti held a conference call with the staff of MLB Tonight, a studio show that treats every night of the season like the NCAA tournament, cutting in and out of games at critical junctures. "He told us, 'If it's a key moment, don't worry about the commercial break,'" says host Greg Amsinger. " 'Let's capture the night.'"
Some teams had nothing to gain and were inspired. Others had everything to lose and were paralyzed. One didn't seem to care at all. The Yankees, locked into the No. 1 seed in the AL playoffs and facing the Rays, started 23-year-old righthander Dellin Betances, who had pitched two-thirds of an inning in his major league career. Manager Joe Girardi gave nights off to top relievers Mariano Rivera, Rafael Soriano and Dave Robertson. By contrast, the Phillies, locked into the No. 1 seed in the NL and facing the Braves, went with seven-year veteran Joe Blanton and positioned former World Series MVP Cole Hamels to work in relief.
It was as if the Yankees were sabotaging the Red Sox and the Red Sox were sabotaging themselves. Boston manager Terry Francona acknowledged that catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia could start despite an injured collarbone, but he opted for Yale graduate Ryan Lavarnway, who had started once at catcher in the big leagues—the day before. The rookie did hit two home runs in that game, so Francona batted him fifth on the most important night of the season. The Rays, needing the Orioles to beat the Red Sox one more time, considered shouting "O!" before the last verse in The Star-Spangled Banner, the way fans at Camden Yards do. They didn't go through with it, but the idea was revealing of their mood: relaxed yet resolved. Backup first baseman Dan Johnson strolled through their clubhouse before the game in a T-shirt that read DAN F------ JOHNSON."
The best night in baseball history did not start that way. In Houston, St. Louis took a 5--0 lead in the first inning against the Astros, putting pressure on Atlanta to win and force a one-game playoff. The Yankees took a 5--0 lead in the second in St. Petersburg, opening the door for Boston to clinch the wild card outright. Rays senior adviser Don Zimmer was watching on a television in Westmoreland's office, but when the Yankees went up 7--0 in the fifth, he changed the channel to Red Sox--Orioles. "All you can do now," Zimmer told Westmoreland, "is hope for the Orioles."
But the Red Sox were winning, 3--2, and in the sixth inning shortstop Marco Scutaro started a double play, flipping the ball to second with his glove while racing to his left. "You see that, and you think, They've got it sewn up," says Baltimore third baseman Chris Davis. Jeff Ziegler, Tampa Bay's traveling secretary, left his seats on the third base line at Tropicana Field and took his girlfriend and daughter to the team store. This, it appeared, was their last chance to buy souvenirs.
In the seventh inning Casey Kotchman was the only player with a hit for the Rays, and Maddon considered whether he should use his best relief pitchers or preserve them in case the Orioles rallied and there was a playoff the next day. He decided to save them. In the seventh Maddon summoned reliever Dane De La Rosa (ERA coming in: 12.00), and during the change he told home plate umpire Joe West, "I hear there's a rain delay in Baltimore. That could help us. The Red Sox are winning, but now they've got to think about it."
The Red Sox were watching the Yankees-Rays game in their clubhouse, delighted at what they saw. On the MLB Network, Greg Amsinger reminded viewers in New England, "Next time you see a fan of the Yankees, give him a hug. Say thank you."
The Yankees had not lost a 7--0 lead in the eighth inning or later since 1953, but these were the Scranton Wilkes-Barre Yankees. Derek Jeter had been replaced at shortstop by Ramiro Peña, first baseman Mark Teixeira by Eric Chavez, centerfielder Curtis Granderson by Greg Golson, rightfielder Nick Swisher by Chris Dickerson. The Phillies, on the other hand, still had all but one starting position player in the game when the ninth inning began in Atlanta. Closer Craig Kimbrel, who set a rookie record with 46 saves for the Braves, gripped a 3--2 lead. Kimbrel was untouchable for most of the summer. But on Sept. 9 he blew his first save in nearly four months, and he blew another 10 days later.
Kimbrel threw a 100-mph fastball to the first batter he faced, Placido Polanco, who lined it to rightfield for a single. "My mind was rushing," Kimbrel said after the game. "Things started moving too fast." He would walk three batters in an inning for the first time all season, and when Chase Utley punched a sacrifice fly to left, the game was tied, and the Braves were crushed. The Phillies weren't all that thrilled, either. Says manager Charlie Manuel, "It was like, Do we really want to be here all night with the playoffs coming?"