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Six minutes that shook baseball history and put the Tampa Bay Rays in the AL playoffs

ST. PETERSBURG — A baseball season is 162 games long. It begins in early April and ends for almost every team in late September. For both the Tampa Bay Rays and the rival Boston Red Sox, two teams vying for one spot in the playoffs, this season came down to the 162nd game. The Rays were playing the Yankees here and the Red Sox were playing the Orioles in Baltimore. Two 162nd games came down to the last six minutes.

It was 11:59 Wednesday night at Tropicana Field.

The crowd started to make noise.

"As you can hear," Dewayne Staats, the Rays' play-by-play announcer, told the local television audience, "Nolan Reimold has tied the game for the Baltimore Orioles. An RBI double and it's 3-3 in the bottom half of the ninth inning."

It was 7-7 at the Trop. B.J. Upton was up to bat. He fouled off a pitch. He took a ball. He swung and missed.

In Section 132, over by the Rays' bullpen, Robin Didden of Tampa watched the Red Sox game on the screen of her iPhone. "Oh my God," she said to the man sitting next to her. On the screen of her phone the Orioles were racing out onto the field. "The Orioles just won."

The man stood up and yelled to the people around them. "The Orioles won! The Orioles won!"

Everybody was standing. Upton swung and missed. Strikeout. Nobody sat down. No matter what happened next, the Rays were guaranteed at least one more game, a single-game tiebreaker against the Red Sox. Win here, though, and they would go straight to the playoffs.

In Tampa, Carlos Borges and his wife went into the garage to watch the game on their laptop, instead of on the TV inside. Something good, they thought, was about to happen. They didn't want to wake up their sleeping kids.

In St. Petersburg, in her living room, Jane Graves clanked her cowbell, quietly.

In Italy, season ticket holder Annette Baesel of St. Petersburg, on vacation at a farmhouse bed and breakfast, was following the game on Twitter. She looked outside and noticed the sky was getting light. The sun was coming up. A new day.

Evan Longoria stepped to the plate. It was 12:03.

He took two practice swings, raised the bat, stepped back with his left foot. Behind him, a woman folded her hands in front of her mouth as if in prayer. The pitch was low and outside.

"One ball, no strikes," Staats said.

Longoria looked at the pitcher and tightened his grip on the bat. At 12:04 a.m., strike one.

As Longoria stepped back into the box, a growing cheer rose, more sudden, more intense than the last one. The people in the stands pointed toward the outfield. Now everybody knew what had happened in Baltimore.

BOS 3

BAL 4

In the first-base stands, Merrill Frazier of St. Petersburg and his friends held up a banner they had brought: WE BELIEVE IN MIRACLES. A white-haired, big bellied usher behind home plate raised his fists in the air.

Rays manager Joe Maddon, down in the dugout, swallowed and crossed his arms.

"It was Evan's three-run home run in the eighth inning that made it 7 to 6," Staats said on TV.

Another pitch. Longoria swung and missed. He chewed his gum. He took a breath.

Next pitch, low and away.

"Two balls and two strikes."

In Orlando, Marissa May, a Rays fan who works for Disney in public relations, sat on the edge of her couch in her living room, and talked out loud to her Boston terrier named Louis: "Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God, this is actually happening. We're doing it right now."

Longoria used his bat to tap the dirt off his left cleat, then his right. He held his bat in front of his face, looked at it for a second. The bright lights bounced off his helmet.

The pitch was low and away. Longoria caught a piece of it.

"It's fouled the other way and out of play," Staats said.

Longoria planted his feet in the batter's box. One more deep breath.

"I'm ready to party," said Dave Wills, the color commentator on the Rays radio network. "Let's go."

Chris Smith, delivering the last pizza of his Domino's shift, pulled off Kennedy Boulevard and banged his hand on the steering wheel.

At the Trop, the umpire crouched, the catcher squatted, the pitcher lifted his left leg to his chest and fired a fastball toward the inside part of the plate. Longoria took a short step and started his swing. It was 12:05.

Ben Montgomery can be reached at bmontgomery@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8650. Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8751. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelkruse.

Want to go? How to get tickets:

Tickets for Monday's Game 3 and Tuesday's potential Game 4 of the ALDS will go on sale at 1 p.m. today exclusively through raysbaseball.com. Remaining tickets will go on sale at 9 a.m. Saturday at all usual outlets, including via Ticketmaster, the Tropicana Field box office and the team's Tampa store.

Six minutes that shook baseball history and put the Tampa Bay Rays in the AL playoffs 09/29/11 [Last modified: Friday, September 30, 2011 9:45am]
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