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One ball, three ricochets and a night Rays fans will forever curse

John Romano | A 100-win season is in danger of ending tonight in Boston if Tampa Bay’s fortunes don’t change.
Boston Red Sox right fielder Hunter Renfroe (10) chases down the ball, hit by the Rays' Kevin Kiermaier, as it hits the wall before bouncing off Renfroe and over the wall for a ground-rule double during the thirteenth inning Sunday at Fenway Park.
Boston Red Sox right fielder Hunter Renfroe (10) chases down the ball, hit by the Rays' Kevin Kiermaier, as it hits the wall before bouncing off Renfroe and over the wall for a ground-rule double during the thirteenth inning Sunday at Fenway Park. [ MICHAEL DWYER | AP ]
Published Oct. 11, 2021|Updated Oct. 11, 2021

This is why we watch. This is why we care so deeply about a silly game of bats and balls.

Also, this is why we sometimes cry.

The Rays and Red Sox played a magnificent, five-hour postseason game at Fenway Park on Sunday that will be talked about for years to come. And it will be cursed for as long as there are baseball fans still around in Tampa Bay.

When it was all over, the Red Sox had won Game 3 of the American League Division Series 6-4 in 13 innings, putting the Rays on the brink of elimination just a handful of games after finishing their greatest regular season ever.

“This is what it’s all about. This is what you play for,” said Rays centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier. “Games like (Sunday), we’ll remember forever. It’s unfortunate it didn’t go our way, but you know, this is great for our (sport) to have games like these.”

Did the Rays play valiantly? Yes. Did they make mistakes? Yes. Did they get hosed? Oh yes, times a thousand.

A quirky, never-seen-that-before play in the top of the 13th inning robbed the Rays of the go-ahead run that would have changed the dynamics of everything that followed. Major League Baseball was adamant that the umpires got the call right, and Rays manager Kevin Cash did not disagree that the rule book was interpreted correctly.

But that doesn’t mean the Rays weren’t robbed by fate, bad luck and — curses! — the Forrest Gump-like presence of Hunter Renfroe in rightfield.

With Yandy Diaz on first base and breaking for second on a two-out, full-count pitch, Kiermaier hit a bomb to right-center. The ball left his bat at 105 mph and traveled 381 feet before hitting high off the wall, bouncing on the ground, ricocheting off Renfroe’s hip and sailing back over the fence.

According to the rule book, that’s a ground-rule double and Diaz must stop at third base, though he would have scored easily if Renfroe — who was an epic disaster with the Rays in 2020 — hadn’t inadvertently knocked the ball into the Red Sox’s bullpen.

The rule book was clearly inadequate in this situation, though it’s impossible to cover every potential scenario. Still, it would probably behoove MLB to change the rules to give umpires a little more discretion on ground-rule doubles with runners in motion.

“I’ve never seen that before in my life,” said Red Sox centerfielder Enrique Hernandez, who was backing up Renfroe on the play. “I wasn’t sure what was going to get called. I wasn’t sure if the runners had to return. … I had no idea.

“Luckily, it went our way. Call it homefield advantage if you want, call it whatever you want, but we won.”

This was our Steve Bartman moment. Our Ed Armbrister moment. Our Mickey Owen moment.

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Every generation has its own October controversy that outlives everyone who claimed to have seen it. You can picture it leading to some poor soul on a corner barstool at Ferg’s bellowing, apropos of nothing, about ground-rule doubles on a random weekday in December.

Take a moment to think about everything that had to happen to create that play. If Kiermaier had hit the ball 382 feet instead of 381, it would have been a home run. And probably nowhere else would the deflection have left the field of play except for Fenway’s notoriously short rightfield wall. And Renfroe had to arrive at that exact moment and in that exact position for the deflection to even take place.

“It’s incredible that it worked out to their advantage like that,” Kiermaier said

The play was magnified by the enormity of the stakes involved and the drama of all that had preceded it. For the second game in a row, Tampa Bay’s daring plan to start a talented but highly inexperienced pitcher turned disastrous.

Drew Rasmussen was pulled after two-plus innings, making it his least successful start since joining the rotation in mid-August. What followed was a nail-biting procession of eight relievers who kept the game tight while Tampa Bay hitters struggled to even put the ball in play.

Brandon Lowe and Mike Zunino, who finished first and second on the team in slugging percentage and OPS in the regular season, went 0-for-12 with seven strikeouts between them.

And yet the relievers kept the score close enough for a Wander Franco homer and a Randy Arozarena RBI double to tie it in the eighth.

The cost, however, is that the Rays used Luis Patino and a lot of other relievers who were expected to pitch in Game 4 today, which is now a do-or-die scenario for the Rays.

“Always encouraged with this group of guys,” Cash said. “Nobody was thinking we were out of it (Sunday). We certainly don’t feel like we’re out of anything. Our goal now is let’s find a way to get this back to the Trop (for a deciding Game 5).”

This is why we watch. And if all goes well, it’s why we’ll be back at Tropicana Field on Wednesday.

Contact John Romano at Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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