CBSSports.com Senior Baseball Columnist

Rays' final chapter in comeback story defies belief

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Nine games behind on Sept. 3? No problem. Down 7-0 in the eighth inning in Game 162? Kid stuff. (US Presswire)  
Nine games behind on Sept. 3? No problem. Down 7-0 in the eighth inning in Game 162? Kid stuff. (US Presswire)  

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Where were you on Wednesday night, an evening that already is being pegged as one of the greatest baseball nights ever?

Were you clutching your remote? Were you transfixed by the television set? Were you agonizing with Atlanta, begging for Boston?

Dan Johnson was standing at home plate in Tropicana Field in the ninth inning, the rain pouring up in Baltimore, his Tampa Bay Rays one strike away from drowning in Florida. And then, crack!

"I'm thinking earlier in the game, 'C'mon Baltimore,' " Rays manager Joe Maddon would say after Tampa Bay somehow -- and it might take weeks to figure out the how -- stepped into the playoffs with an 8-7 all-timer against the Yankees. "I didn't want a one-game playoff [Thursday].

"But about the fourth inning, I did."

Tampa Bay was done. Cooked. Down 7-0 ... until Johnson, who appears about once a year like the Easter Bunny (for the Rays) and tax day (for the Red Sox and Yankees), cranked a game-tying home run and turned a 7-6 Yankees lead into a 7-7 Tampa Bay prayer.

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Where were you Wednesday as baseball rolled out an epic evening quite unlike any that even men who have been in the game for decades have ever seen? Did you have enough batteries to keep feeding your television remote?

Evan Longoria was standing at home plate at The Trop with one out in the 12th when he had to momentarily step out because the Tropicana Field suddenly burst into loud, spontaneous applause. Improbably, incredibly, in Baltimore, the Orioles had tied and then beaten Boston in the bottom of the ninth.

"I figured at that point, the Orioles had won," Longoria said. "Then it was a matter of getting back into the at-bat. Obviously, we had an opportunity. I was thinking, 'Just get on base.' "

His bat was thinking something else. It tore into a Scott Proctor fastball, the ball sailed over the left-field fence ... and the baseball didn't stop until it crashed through several windows -- and a season -- in Boston.

Who does this? Who lives like this?

A triple play during a must-win game one night ... and then racing back from a 7-0 deficit during a must-win game the very next night?

"I have no way to describe this," Maddon said, drenched in champagne.

A total of three minutes elapsed between the Red Sox's latest blown game and the Rays and 29,518 fans threatening to blow the roof off the joint in St. Petersburg.

While Atlanta was blowing one final game, in the 13th inning to Philadelphia, to complete its collapse and allow St. Louis to grab the NL wild-card slot, the Red Sox were one-upping them.

Boston's loss came at 12:02 a.m. ET.

Longoria's modern-day Shot Heard 'Round the World came at 12:05.

Three minutes. It was almost slow motion. The Red Sox went from losing ... to still hoping for a one-game playoff Thursday in Florida ... to a sudden-death ending to their season in an all-time collapse.

"This compares to Bobby Thomson's home run [1951]," Maddon said. "It's right up there with what Joe Carter did for Toronto against the Phillies [in the 1993 World Series]. It has that quality to it, man.

"In some ways, it exceeds that based on where we were at the beginning of the month. Nobody believed we could do this."

It was the greatest September comeback in the history of Major League Baseball, and if you don't buy it, go to the numbers. From nine games out of a playoff spot on Sept. 4 to Arlington, where the Rays will meet the Texas Rangers in Game 1 of an American League Divisional Series on Friday.

You can talk the 1964 Cardinals, who trailed Gene Mauch's Phillies by 8½ games on Sept. 5. Name your team.

"We certainly do not have easy in our playbook," Rays general manager Andrew Friedman said.

You think things were a blur at home as you clicked from one game to the next trying to keep up with it all? As the game in Baltimore stayed close, at times, even in Tampa Bay -- and especially with the Rays losing 7-0 -- the Rays themselves didn't know where to look.

"As intense as this game was, watching both added an element that I don't think my heart was prepared for," Friedman said. "It was as dramatic a night of baseball as you can imagine."

Until their six-run eighth, the Rays were losing 7-0. There was a rain delay in Baltimore, with Boston winning. What the Rays were about to do was head back to their clubhouse to watch the rest of their season on television. Once their loss was in the books, their only hope was for Boston to lose, another avenue that would have forced the one-game playoff Thursday.

Then, not long before they took the tarp off the Camden Yards field, Maddon sent Johnson up to pinch hit with two outs in the ninth.

If I didn't talk to him myself after this thing, I wouldn't have believed the guy was for real. Because what he did was beyond fiction.

Even given his history.

When the Rays were staging their miracle World Series run in 2008, he belted a huge, late-season home run against Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon in Fenway Park at a time when the young Rays were learning to believe in themselves. The home run sent the game into extra innings.

He played in Japan in 2009 ... and then came back to the Rays last summer ... and clobbered a game-winning home run against Boston reliever Scott Atchison at The Trop last August that helped move Tampa Bay toward another playoff path.

Then he crushed two go-ahead home runs against Phil Hughes and the Yankees last September that moved the Rays closer to October.

But, this? He couldn't pull off that fantasy stuff again, could he?

He was batting .108 when he came to the plate. The guy stayed in shape last winter by building an ice hockey rink back home in Minnesota and playing with his sons and the neighborhood kids.

Where were they Wednesday night? Let's hope each one of them was watching.

"I can't even explain the feeling," Johnson said. "I didn't even know what I did. It was a blur.

"I remember hitting that home run in Boston, to right-center, and I knew that was fair, and it silenced the crowd. Here, to do it in front of the home crowd. ... "

He's 31, clinging to a piece of the game like an old-timer to a cherished picture, and these moments keep happening.

Who does he think he is, Gates Brown? How does he do it?

"If I knew, I'd probably do it more often," Johnson said. "I'd do it in other situations."

"You know, I told D.J. when he was going to the plate that this was going to be reminiscent of '08," Longoria said. "I don't know how he does it, but it's pretty incredible."

They're all pretty incredible, these Tampa Bay Rays who lost so much last winter -- Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, seven of their top eight relievers from last year -- and gained so much this month. While Boston was going 6-18 since Sept. 4, the Rays were going 16-8.

"I don't think there's any specific explanation," Longoria said. "We're just a bunch of guys who put together an incredible season."

That, they did.

Then, they topped themselves, playing a starring role in one of the greatest nights of baseball any of us have ever witnessed.

"It just seemed like we played baseball for the better part of five hours," Longoria said. "And then the end result came in a matter of seconds."

It was a night that will have its story told, and re-told, and then re-told again, for decades.

"At the end of the day, it was a great night for Major League Baseball, and I'm good with that," Maddon said. "For those teetering on whether to watch playoff baseball, I think they were won over tonight."

Bring your television remote in for a tuneup. Stock up on batteries. You can't miss this.

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