Thursday, September 29, 2011

Why Baseball Is So Great

There are throngs and throngs of people who complain about baseball being so damn boring. Hell, my man Kenny dedicated an entire post on how to survive baseball season, as if it's a torturous endeavor to sit through 162 games. There's no clock! There's too many games! The season's too long! The critics go on and on.

I've never really understood these arguments because to me, baseball always has been and always will be incredibly fun to follow. Night in and night out, you never know what you're going to see. One night, it may be a complete-game shutout, another a team dropping 18 runs on someone. One game may be shortened by rain to 5 and a half innings while another goes 17, 18, 19 innings. One minute a pitcher is hitting a home run, and the next minute a utility infielder is firing 90-mph heaters on the mound.

That's what makes baseball so great. You truly have a chance to witness something you've never seen before on a nightly basis. It's remarkable, and it's what keeps me on the edge of my seat from April through the dog days of summer all the way through October.

Last night was one of those rare instances in sports that you simply could not avoid getting caught up in if you truly are a fan. I don't care what your feelings are about baseball, that string of games was absolutely amazing.

Four teams — the Atlanta Braves, St. Louis Cardinals, Tampa Bay Rays and Boston Red Sox — were literally playing for their playoff lives on the final day of the season. 161 games couldn't differentiate these teams, thanks to two historic collapses by Atlanta and Boston coinciding with two historic stretches by St. Louis and Tampa Bay. Never can I remember the drama being so high, and it became even better theater than the most creative of screenwriters could have produced.

The Phillies, with nothing to play for playoff-wise, could set the single-season franchise record for wins by defeating the Braves, simultaneously allowing Charlie Manuel to become the all-time winningest manager all by his lonesome in Phillies history, while the Braves had to win just to force a one-game playoff as it became clear the Cardinals were going to destroy the Astros.

The Phillies didn't roll over for Atlanta in the least, playing their starters and even working in Cole Hamels for some action. But Atlanta got the game to where it wanted it, with a lead in the 9th and their stud rookie closer, who set the all-time record for most saves by a rookie with 46, Craig Kimbrel on the mound.

Kimbrel had been Atlanta's most reliable guy all year, but on this night, with everything on the line, he couldn't close it out. A leadoff single by Placido Polanco, followed by back-to-back one-out walks to Ben Francisco and Jimmy Rollins loaded the bases with just one out. And Chase Utley made the rookie pay, hitting a sac fly to tie it up and force extras.

Some four innings later, Hunter Pence was blooping an infield single that scored the game-winning run, making this the best regular-season Phillies team of all time managed by the best manager in franchise history.

At the same time, the Braves were officially eliminated from the playoffs as the Cards cruised past the Astros behind a complete-game shutout by Chris Carpenter.

Then I turned my full attention to the Red Sox-Orioles game. Boston took a 3-2 lead in the 5th when the rains started to roll in to Baltimore. A rain delay ensued, almost taunting Boston fans as much as the team itself had taunted them in September, making them suffer even longer to find out what would happen.

Like the Braves, the Red Sox got the game to where they wanted it, with their closer Jonathan Papelbon on the mound holding a lead in the 9th. As I turned up the volume, the Rick Sutcliffe said, "Look at Papelbon's eyes. He's not going to let this one slip away."

He could not have been more wrong. Back-to-back two-out doubles tied it up, and a single by Robert Andino left the Red Sox waiting with baited breath. Now they needed the Yankees, who had already blown a 7-0 lead and allowed the tying run in the most unlikeliest of ways, to somehow find a way to win in extra innings.

Literally minutes after Andino's walkoff hit to best the Red Sox, Evan Longoria stepped to the plate and did this:

Good night, Boston. Good night, Atlanta. Great night for baseball and sports fans everywhere.

It was literally the type of night that made you forget about everything else going on in your life. You were caught up in the moment. Caught up in the drama. Caught up in the sheer inconceivable moments from last night.

Two epic choke jobs. Extra innings. Three blown saves. A 9th-inning, game-tying home run by a guy batting under .200. Two walk-off hits, including a walk-off home run. And a franchise finishing off its greatest regular season ever. Unreal.

For a moment, forget about who is playing who and what is to come. Just take the time to reflect on the craziest 24 hours we have probably ever seen in any sport. It was enough to make you go giddy.

Last night, we witnessed something we have never seen before and may never see again. That's what baseball offers every fan every single night, and that's why baseball is so damn great, no matter what anyone else tries to tell you.

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