ST. PETERSBURG — Has it really been 10 years since the Rays staged the remarkable comeback that led to arguably the most exciting and dramatic moment in regular-season play?
Since Evan Longoria hit the first home run to get the Rays back in a game they trailed 7-0 to the Yankees into the eighth inning? And Dan Johnson hit his down-to-their-last-strike homer? And the Red Sox lost a game in Baltimore they had been winning? Then moments later Longoria hit the home run, the 12th-inning walkoff blast that sent the Rays into the playoffs and Game 162 of the 2011 season into history?
“The years go by fast and the memories come and go, but when you get a second to step back and think about it, it’s pretty cool, it’s pretty special,” Longoria said Thursday. “It seems like it was just yesterday.”
On Tuesday, “yesterday” officially will be 10 years ago.
But for anyone who was at Tropicana Field, and for millions of others who watched the 8-7 win live, saw the highlights, read the articles and the poetic essays, or otherwise enjoyed the moment, it will always be a vivid memory. And a special night.
“You’ll never forget that,” said Joe Maddon, the former Rays manager.
The game has aged well.
Longoria, who was traded to the Giants after the 2017 season, said he still gets asked about it, especially as the anniversary nears.
Maddon, who went on to manage the Cubs and is now with the Angels, uses the game — and that whole season as they were nine games out of a playoff spot in September — as an example in resiliency and a teaching tool in bullpen management.
Johnson, now working as a financial advisor in his native Minnesota and coaching teams with all four of his kids, enjoys when people make the connection. “I love hearing about it,” he said.
And bullpen coach Stan Boroski, the only one from that Sept. 28, 2011, game still in a Rays uniform, considers it the most exciting game he has ever been a part of.
There still is a lot to talk about.
The Rays went into the day tied with the Red Sox at 90-71 for the American League wild-card spot. If both teams won or lost, there would be a one-game playoff the next day at the Trop. But if one won and the other lost, they were headed to Texas to face the Rangers in the Division Series.
A rough start by David Price and a second-inning grand slam by Mark Teixiera put the Rays in an early hole that grew to 7-0 by the fifth. The Red Sox, meanwhile, were winning 3-2.
The Rays started their comeback in the eighth, with a Johnny Damon leadoff single. They loaded the bases, then got runs with Sam Fuld drawing a walk, Sean Rodriguez being hit by a pitch, B.J. Upton delivering a sac fly.
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On the bench, several Rays talked aloud about Longoria coming up big. He did, hitting a three-run homer to make it 7-6. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re close,’ ” Johnson said.
They had hope, but not much time.
Johnson, who had hit a memorably clutch homer in the 2008 pennant race, was in the batting cage during the start of the ninth taking some light swings to protect a sore wrist when a security guard yelled, “Hey, you’re up to bat next.”
Maddon had wanted to save Johnson for a chance to win it, but with two quick outs in the ninth, he had no choice and sent him up to hit for Fuld. “When it got to two outs and nobody on, there’s only one man for that job,” Maddon said Thursday. “And that’s Dan Johnson.”
Johnson took a Cory Wade fastball down the middle that he can still annoyingly see today and quickly got down to the last strike. Then he laced a ball just over the rightfield fence and inside the foul pole. “I was just like, ‘Stay fair! Stay fair!’ ” Johnson said. It did, as the Rays tied it. A white seat in Section 140 marks the spot where it hit; Johnson has the bat in a bag with some other keepsakes.
“That whole day doesn’t happen without him hitting that home run — two outs, two strikes, bottom of the ninth,” Longoria said.
“It was unbelievable,” Boroski said. “Just incredible.”
There was more amazing to come.
Boston’s game in Baltimore had been delayed by rain, but play resumed and a few minutes before midnight, Rays players heard a buzz among the fans who were still at the Trop. The Red Sox had just lost with ex-Ray Carl Crawford failing to make a play on the walkoff hit by Robert Andino (whom the Rays gave a standing ovation when they saw him in a game the next spring).
Moments later, Longoria stepped to the plate with one out in the 12th. He drove a 2-2 pitch from Scott Proctor, who was working a third inning as the division champ Yankees were saving the rest of their bullpen, over the short fence in leftfield. He made history and memories.
“He did a lot of wonderful things down there,” Maddon said. “But I don’t think he did anything more dramatic than that. There was that iconic photograph of him running with his arms up, fists raised in the air. … That, for Longo, was kind of defining.”
Longoria, who always says he values team accomplishments more, considers the walkoff homer his best personal moment. He has seen highlights of the game many times, but said once he retires he plans to watch it from start to finish and soak in all the drama.
As current Rays manager Kevin Cash, who was in the stands as a scout for Texas and watching in awe, would tell him, it was “probably the best regular-season night” there’s ever been.
“You don’t ever come back from 7-0 in the eighth inning,” Boroski said. “It just doesn’t happen. The odds are astronomical. But it did.”
Ten short years ago.
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