By Nick Shepkowski–
(CBS) Tonight marks the fourth anniversary of what to me — and many observers — is the most exciting night in baseball history. A subplot of Sept. 28, 2011 is that the 2015 Chicago Cubs built in large part due to the events of that fateful and entertaining evening.
You may remember that earlier this year when the Cubs were in Los Angeles for a weekend series, manager Joe Maddon discussed with famed broadcaster Vin Scully what led him to his current position in Chicago. “A God-wink moment” is how Maddon described Matt Adams’ home run in the 2014 NLDS off Clayton Kershaw that helped lead the Cardinals to the NLCS and send the Dodgers home.
The Dodgers then decided to rearrange their front office by hiring Andrew Friedman away from the Rays to head the baseball side of their organization. Friedman’s exit allowed Maddon to opt out of his deal in Tampa, leading him to become a free agent and ultimately the Cubs’ manager.
But it wasn’t just that Adams home run last October that put together the Cubs’ current leadership core and, in turn, their roster. It was instead, as Maddon would likely call them, several “God-wink moments” four years ago.
The 2011 Red Sox were big spenders, put together by then-general manager Theo Epstein. Embarrassed by missing the playoffs in 2010, they were built to win right away. They had signed Carl Crawford to patrol Fenway Park’s outfield and dealt for All-Star first baseman Adrian Gonzalez before the season. Despite going winless in their first six games, win is exactly what Boston did that summer.
The Red Sox entered September at an American League-best 83-52 and held a 1.5-game lead on the Yankees in the AL East. Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay Rays entered the month hardly a blip on the radar, 7.5 games behind the Yankees and nine games behind the Red Sox.
For all intents and purposes, the race was over. Whether the Red Sox would hold onto the division lead was another story, but surely for the seventh time in a nine-year span, Boston would be headed to the postseason.
But then several of those “God-winks” happened.
Coming off an excellent month of August (18-10), the Rays had picked up just a game in a months’ time on the Red Sox. When September — the month Maddon often says “provides the energy for itself” — hit, the Rays just kept on winning, ultimately going 17-10 for the month.
On the other hand, the Red Sox were essentially Boston’s version of the 1969 Cubs. Sure, Tampa Bay was on fire, but Boston went an abysmal 7-20 down the stretch didn’t exactly do itself any favors.
Perhaps it was a months-load of “God-winks” or maybe it was just one night’s worth, but what happened four years ago tonight went on to benefit the Cubs greatly in short order.
As you may recall, the Red Sox and Rays entered the final night of the season (then on a Wednesday) tied for the wild-card lead, each at 90-71. (Remember: There was only one wild-card spot in each league in 2011). The Rays hosted the Yankees that night. New York was in the midst of a solid September itself, having gone 16-11 to that point.
Despite their recent struggles, the Red Sox had big-game standout Jon Lester on the mound against an Orioles team that had already lost 92 games that season.
The Rays were in trouble from jump-street that night, as Mark Teixeira’s second-inning grand slam off David Price put them down 5-0. Teixeira would add a solo home run later, and an Andruw Jones solo home run would make it 7-0 Yankees in the fifth inning.
So game over for the Rays. Couple that with Lester throwing against a struggling Orioles squad, and the playoff dreams were done for Tampa.
At least according to logic.
Sure enough, trailing 7-0 in the bottom of the eighth inning, Maddon’s Rays came to life. They scored six runs in the frame, with Evan Longoria providing a huge blow in the form of a three-run homer.
New York manager Joe Girardi had decided to rest the greatest closer baseball has ever seen in Mariano Rivera (then age 41) for the postseason, as the Yankees were assured of a berth already. Call it another “God-wink” if you’d like, but that meant instead of Rivera’s cutter, the Rays would instead face Chris Wade with their season on the line.
Wade started the bottom of the ninth well, as he got Ben Zobrist to pop out and Casey Kotchman to ground out quickly. That left the hopes of the Rays up to Dan Johnson, who was hitting .119 on the year.
(*Insert God-wink here*)
Johnson tied the game with a homer, and the Rays eventually won in 12 innings — all while master-bag himself, Jonathan Papelbon, provided his own “God-wink” moment, blowing a ninth-inning lead at Camden Yards and watching the Orioles score twice to beat and eliminate the Red Sox.
Thanks to those moments, the Red Sox blew their playoff cushion and stayed at home for October. If that doesn’t happen, who knows what damage the Red Sox could’ve still done in the postseason. At the least, Epstein likely isn’t chased out of Boston, and the Cubs never get him to head the baseball side of operations in late October 2011.
If you’re a Cubs fan, try to imagine that plan of attack. Having seen what the Cardinals (who went on to win that 2011 World Series after some heroics of their own to sneak into the playoffs) and Pirates have put together, it’s obvious that the NL Central will be a juggernaut for some time to come. Now picture the Cubs trying to compete in it sans Epstein.
Or without Anthony Rizzo. Had the prospect not been dealt from Boston to San Diego before the 2011 season started, he perhaps wouldn’t have had his own “God-wink” with the Padres, where he hit just .141 in 49 games.
If Rizzo doesn’t struggle late in that year, then perhaps the Cubs are never able to deal for him and make him one of the franchise’s building blocks.
Four years ago tonight was the best night of baseball I’ve ever watched. Far and away, not even close.
And its events are still shaping the baseball landscape.