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Game 162

The Tampa Bay Rays’ Sam Fuld revisits last season’s historic night.

Tampa Bay Rays

I like to consider myself a coordinated person. I make a living running after baseballs in the outfield, sometimes dodging bullpen mounds, dancing along unpadded walls, even leaping over oncoming teammates on occasion. I think I could more than hold my own on those Japanese obstacle course TV shows. But when Evan Longoria lined a walk-off homer in the bottom of the 12th inning against the Yankees during the last game of the 2011 season to put us in the playoffs, and it came time to climb the three steps that lead from our dugout to the field, I lost all semblance of body control. I ate it. Face-first.

This is what first comes to mind for me when I think about that historic day in Major League Baseball, September 28, 2011. The Yankees had clinched the AL East a few days earlier, while we were tied for the wild-card spot with the Red Sox, who were on the verge of the biggest September collapse in baseball history. Over in the National League, the St. Louis Cardinals were mounting a comeback against the Atlanta Braves almost as improbable as ours. National media were having a field day covering the Sox and their $160 million payroll. This was a team that had gone from World Series favorite to the brink of squandering a playoff berth to the cash-strapped, overachieving Tampa Bay Rays.

But here we were at the end of September, with our postseason fate in our own hands. We had played good, not great, baseball that month. The Red Sox, who had fallen victim to their starting pitchers’ poor performances and some bad luck, now stood tied with us as they took on the Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yards that night.

If this was the biggest game of the year, you wouldn’t have known it from inside the clubhouse. I strolled into the locker room, comforted by the sound of our customary 2 p.m. playlist — I think Kanye West’s “All of the Lights” was on. The typical early crowd was there: the young September call-ups; J.P. Howell rocking back and forth in his chair, his long NorCal locks bouncing along, greeting me with a “What it do?”; and, of course, our training staff, who log more hours at work than a first-year investment banker at Goldman Sachs.

We all knew somewhere hiding in the building lay protective plastic tarps, champagne bottles, and swim goggles; and we all knew perched above our lockers were baseball bags waiting to be packed up for the winter months. But for whatever reason — maybe it was our youth (our three leaders were Evan “Longo” Longoria, 25, James Shields, 29, and Johnny Damon, who could fit into a crowd of college kids as well as anyone on the team); maybe it was our manager (Joe Maddon always wanted us to feel comfortable and free. He has pasted quotes on the locker room wall like, “Integrity has no need of rules” and “Rules cannot take the place of character”); or maybe it was the small, virtually pressure-free market we played in. The atmosphere inside those clubhouse doors was almost no different than it would be before some invisible game in the middle of June.

I grabbed fellow reserve outfielder Justin Ruggiano and convinced him to go outside for a run with me. I’d been craving this run all day long, partially to burn off the pizza I’d been struggling to avoid (does the CBA mandate that each MLB clubhouse provide pizza 24/7?), partially to get some sunshine that, ironically, we Rays are so deprived of for half our games (Tropicana Field is the only non-retractable dome in the major leagues). And maybe just to spend a little time with a buddy who’d experienced this crazy season with me — and who, in this unpredictable profession, I might never play with again. We lumbered down a few long St. Petersburg blocks and returned to the Trop, drenched, in time to watch the Yankees’ Robinson Cano take early batting practice. He launched underhand flips deep into the vacant right-field seats. A-Rod emerged from their dugout and started to loosen up, poised to match Cano’s deposits, though his were directed toward the left-field seats.

“Does this mean they’re not playing?” I asked Rugg. The thought of Brandon Laird and Ramiro Pena replacing them in the lineup was pretty nice. “I dunno, dude,” he answered.

It was 3 p.m., and I was already speculating on the Yankees’ lineup as if I were the owner of a fantasy team.

Four hours later we came to bat in the bottom of the first inning, already down a run. There were two noticeable peculiarities tonight. One: For once, the Trop was packed. Two: The guy standing on the hill for New York was Dellin Betances, making his first career major league start. Betances reminded me a lot of myself — if only I were a foot taller, threw a lot harder, and looked 20 times more intimidating. He was a monster. He seemed like one of those guys who was either going to throw five no-hit innings (he was a starter in the minors but had only worked out of the bullpen for New York) or walk five guys and not get out of the first inning.

After Desmond Jennings popped up to lead off the inning, Betances issued free passes to B.J. Upton and Longo. Maybe Betances just needed to face a lefty: he followed by striking out Matt Joyce and Damon, throwing curveballs that I swear someone dropped from one of the catwalks. Our one-run deficit suddenly seemed a lot larger.

Already, we non-starters had begun paying attention to the Boston-Baltimore game. The scrolling scoreboards at the Trop showed only one game, and it wasn’t the Twins-Royals pitching duel. The anxiety reminded me of watching the draft the year I was taken, or checking the mail every day in high school while I waited for my college acceptance letter. I needed to have more detail, more insight. I left the dugout and went to our clubhouse, where several TVs were showing the game. This would be our schedule for the next few innings: up the stairs to watch the Red Sox when we were done hitting, back down once the Yankees made their third out.

By the fifth inning, we were spending more and more time watching the game in Baltimore, because that was a lot less painful to watch than the one at the Trop. A-Rod was indeed taking the night off, and Cano was only DHing, but still the Yankees had built a 7-0 lead in the fifth inning. This, coupled with Boston’s 3-2 lead, had us thinking more about the bags above our lockers than the champagne. Thankfully, I had my mid-game routine to distract me from this helpless watching: 15 minutes on the bike, stretch, take some hacks off the tee and off our hitting coach Derek Shelton in the cage. Usually by the time I had completed this program, the game was somewhere in the seventh inning and I was too busy to get worked up about a potential high-leverage, pinch-hit situation. It was no different tonight, except my pinch-hit at-bat felt like more of a test on my bum wrist than any real opportunity to win a ballgame.

I got the nod in the bottom of the eighth. “Sammy!” yelled our bench coach Davey Martinez, bopping his two closed fists on top of one another — the international sign for “get ready to hit.” Still down 7-0, we had loaded the bases against lefty Boone Logan with no outs. Girardi had seen enough and called on righty Luis Ayala, a guy who slings the ball like he’s skipping rocks, with a 1.64 ERA at the time. As I hopped into the on-deck circle, I had butterflies going. They weren’t really a product of the game situation, but more out of fear of looking like an idiot. I hadn’t seen a live pitch in exactly 14 days! What if Baltimore came back from their 3-2 deficit and we won tomorrow’s play-in? Just swing hard and don’t look hurt. I had to look healthy to make that playoff roster.

Ayala threw me three straight balls to start the at-bat. Then two I-can’t-believe-I-just-did-that-to-this-little-slap-hitter fastballs right down the middle. I stepped out, figured more of the same was coming, and envisioned hitting a line drive over Nunez’s head at short. Nope. Changeup. Seven times out of 10 I would have swung and missed over the top of it. But this time I saw it right out of his hand, and knew it was a ball immediately. Wow. Never took the bat off my shoulder and got one of the easiest RBIs of all time.

Four batters later I stood on second base with two outs, down 7-3 now. I had given Yankees second baseman Eduardo Nunez the obligatory “What’s up, man?” and he smiled in return — the kind of amused grin only a player who knew he was already going to the playoffs could give. Then, Longo stepped to the plate. Before I could turn around to check the Red Sox game (just kidding, I wouldn’t do that … OK, maybe during a pitching change … or a long at-bat), he had blasted his 30th home run of the year and I was high-tenning in the dugout. How did we go from 7-0 to 7-6 in just 25 pitches?!

I played an uneventful top of the ninth inning in right field, then prepared to hit third against Cory Wade. Girardi refrained from using his “big three” — Soriano, Robertson, and Rivera — so that they’d get ample rest for Game 1 of the ALDS. Cory was a Ray during spring training, and despite pitching well, didn’t break camp with us. After carving up triple-A hitters for two months, he took his “out” (a contract clause that many minor league free agents exercise to find an opportunity elsewhere) and signed with the Yankees. He quickly became a key reliever for them, and had whittled his ERA down to 1.85 heading into tonight. He probably hates us, the pessimist in me thought. There’s no way he’s letting us get to the playoffs.

Two outs to start the inning. It was down to me. Don’t try to hit a homer. I had already reached my quota on the year, three. Just extend the inning. “Sammy!” It was the same voice, same word, and same tone as the inning before. Except this time the hand gesture was a plea to come back to the dugout. My stomach had dropped, my spirits deflated, but I wasn’t going to show any disappointment. Frankly, I’m not good enough to have any baggage and remain employable. At that moment, the last thing the dugout needed was any negative vibes. I really, really, really wanted to hit, but after the shock wore off, I remembered that Joe was the best manager in the game, and he had an uncanny knack for pushing all the right buttons. I was over it. I was ready to cheer on Dan Johnson.

I snuck into an empty space on the dugout rail and watched Dan get himself into a 1-2 hole. Ball two. Then, a foul ball. It was a healthy hack on a fastball, one that gave us all a little hope in this dire situation. We were Butler and the Red Sox were Duke. Dan Johnson was Gordon Hayward and his half-court heave was about to rim out. But then it went in. But Dan hooked a changeup down the right-field line. We all leaned forward over the padded dugout rail, not one set of feet on the ground, and then erupted as if we had each simultaneously drained a 50-foot eagle putt. Home run, game tied, and now we were going to win. We knew it. If you looked at the win expectancy at that particular moment, you’d see us at only 53 percent. But there was no convincing any of us in the dugout that momentum didn’t exist in baseball.

Scott Proctor came in to pitch for the Yankees and convinced his arm it was 2006, closing out the ninth and then holding us scoreless in the 10th and 11th. Meanwhile, the clubhouse-to-dugout shuttle got busier as play resumed in Baltimore. At one point, we were all gathered in the food room, where one large screen was showing our game, flanked on either side by two smaller ones showing the Red Sox game. I looked around the room and said, “Raise your hand if you played baseball tonight.” About 10 hands shot up, with only Jeremy Hellickson abstaining — he had started the previous night. We all turned to Helly. “You’re next.”

The buzz from Dan’s home run had slowly worn off, and it felt like we were headed for a repeat of the 16-inning, five-hour, 44-minute marathon we’d played in July. As word trickled out to the dugout that Boston had grounded into a double play to kill a ninth-inning rally, we decided to duck back inside to watch Baltimore’s last chance. Back on the field, Longo booted a ball to lead off the top of the inning, and my thoughts reverted back to their more comfortable pessimistic place. Papelbon struck out the first two Baltimore batters in the bottom of the ninth, and we were running out of steam.

Then, a Baltimore double coupled with a Yankee baserunning blunder gave the food room a jolt of life. It felt like a sports bar, not a clubhouse. We were all just fans, powerless to control the outcomes of these two gripping games. Even Dan Johnson, proud smile and all, had transformed himself from hero to spectator. But it wasn’t fun! When you’re playing, or even just available on the bench, you don’t feel as nervous. You can’t. You have to convince yourself that what you’re doing doesn’t matter, that nobody’s watching, that your job and money and pride aren’t on the line. The dozen of us that had gathered in that room all knew this role well. But the role of fan? We were as comfortable as a bunch of dads at the Little League World Series, except we had TWO games to watch at the same time.

Just then, Nolan Reimold doubled to tie it up in Baltimore, while our Jake McGee got the pesky Yankees’ Brett Gardner to ground out to end the inning. Holy cow! I forgot I had a bum wrist and slapped every free hand I could find. Momentum is a funny thing.

Three pitches later, Robert Andino lined a splitter to left off of Jonathan Papelbon in Baltimore, sending us remaining “fans” sprinting toward the clubhouse exit as if we were being chased by an armed man.

The little segment of the Trop’s left-field wall, just right of the foul pole looking out from home plate, spans only 20 feet and can’t be much more than four feet high. It’s a dream for left fielders like me who can touch a basketball rim only on a good day, because there’s no way I’m robbing homers anywhere else. Nobody really knows why it’s like that in left field … there are a lot of things at the Trop that nobody really knows about. Jeff Niemann, a guy whose knees can probably see over that part of the wall, once told me that in his three-plus years with the Rays, he’d seen it come into play exactly ONCE.

Make it twice. After B.J. Upton struck out, Longo did his best right-handed Dan Johnson impersonation, driving a misplaced fastball just past the foul pole and barely over that elusive piece of left-field wall. Off the bat, I thought Evan had a sure ground-rule double. Watching the replay later, it reminded me of Mark McGwire’s record-breaking 62nd homer in ’98. It had to be the shortest home run in Tropicana Field history, both in distance and time.

The game itself was a microcosm of the whole season. The Yankees’ one-run first inning was like opening day for us, when everyone was writing off us and our $42 million payroll. The second inning with Teixeira’s grand slam was like the first week of the season, when we were swept at home twice, and lost Manny Ramirez for the season and Longoria for a month. The Yankees’ 7-0 lead heading into the eighth was our nine-game deficit in early September. Whether you put it into numbers or you just felt it, the odds against us were mind-boggling.

We were a bunch of overlooked, undervalued players and coaches, and we loved each other because of it. Someone asked Johnny Damon if this was as good as winning a World Series with Boston and New York. As he smoked a cigar, he simply said, shaking his head, “Better.” Maybe we were all caught up in the moment, but I think every one of us nodded and wholeheartedly believed him.

Sam Fuld plays left field for the Tampa Bay Rays.