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This was baseball history; savor it

Grab the kids now. Hold them as tight as you dare.

And then try to explain what they have just seen play out before unsuspecting eyes. They could live 100 years, and never see another month such as this. They could cheer athletes until the end of days, and never come across a team so relentless.

Twenty-five days remaining. Nine games behind. One epic revival.

And then, somehow, it got even better.

The Rays live still.

Unbelievably. Remarkably. Unmistakably.

Tampa Bay continued the greatest September comeback in baseball history early this morning with one of the greatest comebacks ever seen in a potential elimination game.

The Rays came back from a 7-0 deficit against the Yankees to win 8-7 on an Evan Longoria home run in the 12th inning just after midnight.

Minutes earlier, the crowd at Tropicana Field erupted when word arrived that Baltimore had scored two runs in the ninth to beat the Red Sox 4-3.

And now, today, the Rays head to Texas as the American League wild-card winner with Game 1 of the AL Division Series scheduled for Friday.

"How does that happen? You couldn't even write that. It's beyond earthly comprehension," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "Seriously, two games turning around in the final innings, ending within minutes of each other. You know how I like to talk, and I have no words to describe what I just saw."

Baseball has rarely seen a night such as this. Forget hyperbole, this was drama at the highest level and with the greatest of endings.

Two games being played simultaneously 1,000 miles apart, and both ending on walkoffs as night turned to morning guaranteeing Tampa Bay a spot in the playoffs.

They write books about this kind of thing. They make documentaries out of stories such as this. Forty-seven years later, they still talk about the Phillies blowing a 6 ½-game lead in the season's final 14 days. More than a half-century later, the story of how the 1951 New York Giants overcame a 13-game deficit in 52 days is part of the game's lore.

And around Tampa Bay, they will forever talk of the night Dan Johnson brought a team back from the edge of never.

The Rays were down to what could have been their final strike of the 2011 season when Johnson turned on an inside fastball and drove it over the rightfield wall for a tying home run with two outs in the ninth inning against the Yankees.

It was a line drive hit to one of the shortest parts of the ballpark. Barely fair. Barely high enough. Barely long enough. And yet its impact stretched beyond the ballpark and around the country.

It reached living rooms in Texas, where the Rangers awaited word of their opponent in the AL Division Series. It reached the streets of Boston, where fans had spent hours in anticipation of a Rays loss. It reached the clubhouse at Camden Yards in Baltimore, where the Red Sox must have watched in disbelief during a rain delay.

As stories go, this one seems too ridiculous to be believed.

A team begins September nine games out of the wild-card race, a deficit never before bridged in the final month of a baseball season. Yet, with the help of a colossal Red Sox collapse, the Rays arrived at the final game of the season in a dead heat.

That should have been enough. Really, that should have filled the miracle quota.

But then the Rays fell behind the Yankees 7-0 on Wednesday night and looked absolutely dreadful in the process. Meanwhile, Boston was up 3-2 before a storm delayed the game in Baltimore.

It felt like a cruel joke. Like cosmic payback for all the hysteria of September. It seemed as if the entire world had conspired to poke Tampa Bay in the eye.

Yet we should have known better.

When you go into a season with your payroll cut nearly in half, when you begin April with six consecutive losses, when you fall so far out of the playoff picture that you can feel fourth place breathing on your neck, you tend to make a friend of desperation.

The Rays began the comeback with six runs in the eighth, prolonged it with Johnson's homer in the ninth, and then made history with Longoria's shot in the 12th.

Don't try to calculate the odds. Don't even consider the logic of the moment.

For if there is one thing we have learned about the Rays of 2011, it is that anything is possible. If a team with a $41 million payroll could challenge a heavyweight with $161 million worth of salaries, then what's a 7-0 deficit? If a team with rookies pitching practically every other inning in a pennant race can erase a nine-game lead, then how hard is it for a journeyman pinch hitter to become a hero in the bottom of the ninth?

"We have overcome a lot," DH Johnny Damon said before the game. "But just because we have overcome a lot doesn't mean we're satisfied with what we've done.

"What we set out to do was surprise everybody."

Stop trying to figure it out.

Just sit back and enjoy.

This was baseball history; savor it 09/29/11 [Last modified: Thursday, September 29, 2011 12:13pm]
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