Let’s ask the Tampa Bay Rays if 162 games is too long of a season. Or the St. Louis Cardinals, for that matter. Just don’t ask the Boston Red Sox or the Atlanta Braves, though. In one of the most thrilling endings to a regular season in recent memory, baseball once again proved the adage, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”
From epic collapses to thrilling comebacks, the season finale couldn’t have been scripted any better. Here are the top-10 events from Wednesday:
10. Albert Pujols .299 and 99
From 2001-10, you could always count on two things from Albert Pujols: a .300 batting average and 100 RBIs. For 10 consecutive seasons, The Machine had topped both of those numbers. In fact, he never hit below .310 in any season and failed to knock in at least 110 runs only once. Baseball is the sport of stats, and when Pujols finished the day 1-for-5 with an RBI, he ended up at .299 with 99 RBIs. Still a great season, but it just doesn’t read well on the back of a baseball card.
9. Matt Kemp misses Triple Crown and 40/40
Up until about a week ago, Matt Kemp of the Los Angeles Dodgers had a legitimate shot at the triple crown, something that hadn’t been done since Carl Yastrzemski did it with the Red Sox in 1967, and not in the National League since Joe Medwick accomplished the feat for the Cardinals way back in 1937. Kemp fell short in the batting race, finishing at .324, .013 points behind Jose Reyes of the Mets. He did however hit a two-run HR on Wednesday to finish the season with a league-leading 39 and 126 RBIs. With 40 stolen bases on the year, Kemp also just missed becoming the fifth member of the 40/40 club. The one thing he shouldn’t miss out on is the NL MVP award.
8. Stephen Strasburg is back
I was one of the people who thought the Washington Nationals were idiots for letting Strasburg pitch this season. The guy was coming off major surgery and the team was nowhere in contention. Why risk your franchise player on meaningless games? But after five starts, in which he went 1-1 with a 1.50 ERA, a 0.71 WHIP and 24 strikeouts with just two walks in 24 innings, the decision looks genius. His 10-strikeout performance in six shutout innings Wednesday against the Marlins was about as effortless as it gets. He allowed one hit, two walks and threw 54 of his 79 pitches for strikes. In a full season, it will be interesting to see the kind of numbers a healthy Strasburg puts up next year.
7. Jose Reyes could learn a thing or two from Ted Williams
Back on Sept. 28, 1941, Ted Williams was hitting .39955, or .400 when rounded up. He could have sat out the final day, a doubleheader, and be content with his first .400 season. Saying he wouldn’t have deserved it had he sat out, Williams laced them up and went 6 for 8 to raise his average to .406. That would be the only season the six-time batting champ hit .400 or better.
The Mets Jose Reyes came into Wednesday’s game with a NL-leading .336 average, a .0025 lead over Ryan Braun of the Brewers. He bunted for a single in the first inning, then removed himself from the game to protect his lead. Fans booed, the media pounced and Braun shook it off saying he had gotten three hits in a game before, so no big deal. Braun went 0 for 4 and Reyes won the batting crown. He also lost a lot of respect in the process.
6. Zach Greinke leads Brewers to home-field advantage in NLDS by staying undefeated at home
The Milwaukee Brewers knew if they are going to have any success in the postseason, they need to do it at home. After all, at 57-24, they owned the best home record in baseball. Going into Wednesday’s game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, they needed a victory to secure home field against the Diamondbacks in the NLDS.
Enter Zack Greinke.
Greinke, acquired in the offseason from the Kansas City Royals for prospects, went six innings, allowing two runs on four hits to pick up the win as the Brewers knocked off the Pirates 7-3. The win gave Greinke a perfect season at Miller Park, finishing 11-0, with a 3.13 ERA 1.13 WHIP and 119 K/22 BB in 15 starts. He will look to continue that streak starting this weekend.
5. Mike Napoli powers Rangers to home-field advantage in ALDS
Mike Napoli might have had the quietest season in baseball this year. In 113 games, the 29-year-old catcher hit .320 with 30 HRs and 75 RBIs and had a ridiculous 1.046 OPS. He was especially unreal after the All-Star break, hitting .383 with 18 HRs, 42 RBIs and a 1.171 OPS in 61 games. Wednesday, his 2-for-3, two HR, three RBI performance was all the Texas Rangers needed on offense to beat the Angels 3-1 and secure home field against the Rays.
4. Chris Carpenter saves his best for last
If you had asked the Cardinals Chris Carpenter on Sept. 2 about his season , he would have been the first to tell you that 2011 just wasn’t his year. After giving up six runs in six innings in an 11-8 loss to the Cincinnati Reds, he stood at 8-9 with a 3.92 ERA and a 1.33 WHIP. Then the former Cy Young winner must have watched Game 3 of the 2006 World Series, in which he tossed eight shutout innings to beat the Detroit Tigers and remembered how much fun it was to play baseball in October.
In his five starts since Sept. 2, he went 3-0 with a 1.13 ERA and 0.90 WHIP with two shutouts, including his two-hit gem in an 8-0 victory over the Houston Astros on Wednesday, which helped clinch the wild card for the Cardinals. He struck out 11 and walked only one.
3. The Braves blow 8.5-game lead in 22 days
About a month ago, the regular season looked as if it were going to end without any dramatics. The playoff picture was rounding into form, including the Atlanta Braves, who had an 8.5-game lead in the NL wild card race over the Cardinals, who appeared flat and out of gas. Then they went 9-18 in September.
Rookie phenom Craig Kimbrel had just wrapped up a July and August where he didn’t allow a run in 24 2/3 innings. He had 18 saves in that span and 42 strikeouts to only seven walks. Maybe he hit the rookie wall, or perhaps it was the pressure of a playoff run. Whatever it was, September was not kind to the rook. He blew three saves, including the biggest of his career Wednesday, walking three batters in two-thirds of an inning as the Philadelphia Phillies beat the Braves 4-3 in 13 innings, finally putting an end to their misery.
2. The Red Sox blow 9-game lead in 24 days
As the ball bounced inches in front of Carl Crawford’s glove, the collective sighs of Boston fans holding their breath for probably weeks now let out all at once. It was only fitting that the left fielder who was given a seven-year, $142 million contract — mostly because of his speed — couldn’t catch up to the line drive. His ensuing throw to home plate, which was off by at least 10 feet, epitomized the month of September for the Red Sox.
With a nine-game lead over the Rays, the Red Sox went 7-20 in the month while the Rays went 17-10, erasing the deficit on the final day to knock the Sox out of the playoffs.
1. Evan Longoria’s 315ft HR propels Rays to playoffs
He didn’t know it when he hit it. Evan Longoria raced out of the batter’s box, not knowing if the ball was going to drop in for extra bases or twist foul. Three seconds, and 315 feet later, Longoria had just put his team into the playoffs for the third time in four seasons. After struggling through most of the season, the three-time All-Star turned it around in August. In 55 games since Aug. 1, he had 17 HRs and 46 RBIs, including his 2-for-5, 2-HR, 4-RBI performance Wednesday.
With the Red Sox losing against the Orioles, the Rays needed every ounce of their captain’s bat to put away the New York Yankees in dramatic fashion, and the Rays won their final five games of the season to capture the AL wild card.