PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Luke Scott called the final night of the 2011 season "the greatest night in baseball history," and that seems to be the general sentiment among fans and players alike.
Rays fans won't soon forget that night at Tropicana Field, though the crowd of 29,518 has swelled considerably since. The Rays trailed the Yankees, 7-0, in the eighth before tying the game with two outs in the ninth when Dan Johnson hit a game-tying homer to send the game into extra innings. During that same period, the Orioles came back to defeat the Red Sox in Baltimore. Evan Longoria then hit a walk-off home run in the 12th inning to propel the Rays into the playoffs as the American League Wild Card winner.
The season ended on a Wednesday, which turned out to be a brilliant move by Major League Baseball. Instead of having to fight the NFL for America's attention, MLB had the spotlight.
Not only were fans paying attention, but so were players in other clubhouses -- becoming fans themselves. Count Scott among their numbers.
He was with the Orioles on the final day of the 2011 season.
"I'd already had [right-shoulder] surgery, so I was in the clubhouse during the game," Scott said. "The guys were battling. I was sitting in the clubhouse watching the game with some of my teammates, guys that weren't playing. We were following back and forth.
"We were pulling for Tampa Bay. They were down, 7-0, and we were like, 'Dang-it, we've got to beat Boston, so we can force this playoff.' And then the next thing you know the score [in St. Petersburg is] 7-6. Then it's 7-7. And we're going into the ninth against one of the best closers in the game."
If Jonathan Papelbon could preserve a 3-2 lead, the worst fate the Red Sox could have suffered would have been a one-game playoff with the Rays to determine the American League Wild Card.
Initially, the Boston closer looked overpowering, striking out Adam Jones and Mark Reynolds. Both went down swinging.
But Chris Davis disrupted Papelbon's mojo by hitting a line-drive double to right. Kyle Hudson entered the game as a pinch-runner with Nolan Reimold stepping to the plate. He followed with a ground-rule double to right-center to drive home Hudson and tie the score at 3.
Orioles manager Buck Showalter did not pinch-run for Reimold, whom Scott said is "really fast" even though that is not a well-known fact. Robert Andino finished off the rally with a single that dropped into left field in front of former Ray Carl Crawford to drive home Reimold with the winning run and set off a raucous celebration at the plate.
Being in last place like the Orioles were last year usually makes the final day of the season a "miserable" experience, according to Scott. Winning two out of three against the Red Sox to end the season, however, offered some solace to Baltimore.
"It was awesome, just a beautiful thing," Scott said.
The outspoken Scott is not a fan of Red Sox fans, making the events of Sept. 28 even more special.
|"When you're living it, you don't really process the whole thing."|
-- Joe Maddon,|
on Rays' rally in final game to make playoffs last season
Scott dodged the ensuing Orioles dog pile on the field at the end of the winning rally -- surgically repaired shoulders don't fare well in said situations. Nevertheless, Scott enjoyed the electric atmosphere.
"The clubhouse afterward was like we'd just won the World Series -- a lot of celebrating, a lot of high emotions," Scott said.
Those emotions escalated a notch moments later when Longoria made the Rays winners with a homer.
"Everybody's giving high-fives, then all of a sudden [Longoria] homers," Scott said. "Everybody's in the clubhouse and it's like, Bam! And we're like, 'Go home Boston! Pack your bags. See you next year.'"
Once he'd showered and packed his things for the offseason, Scott headed for his car and started home.
"I got to see a priceless thing driving back to my apartment," Scott said. "I see all the Boston fans walking around, and I mean they were crying crocodile tears. People were like this, walking side by side."
Scott wrapped his arm around a reporter's waist and began to wail to demonstrate.
"It was like someone shot their dog. I rolled down the window and I'm like, 'Ah, hah, sucks doesn't it, when someone laughs or makes fun of you when things aren't going your way.'"
Carlos Pena is back with the Rays after a one-year hiatus with the Cubs. He remembered being in the visitors' clubhouse in San Diego watching the final night unfold.
When Johnson had two strikes on him against Yankees hurler Cory Wade, Pena became prophetic when talking to Cubs outfielder Marlon Byrd.
"At two strikes, I said, 'Dan Johnson is going to hit a home run right now,'" Pena said. "He said, 'Why do you say that?' I said, 'Because that's just what I think a good script would be.' Then he did it. He hit a home run. I almost died. [Byrd is] like, 'I can't believe this.' So I called it.
"Everybody got a kick out of that, because I kept on telling them there was some magic going on with the Rays. I went nuts. I felt excited for the ballclub. I wasn't even part of it, but I felt like I was part of it. I'm like, 'It's time for me to play the lottery after that.'"
New Rays reliever Burke Badenhop played for the Marlins in 2011, and they had already finished by the time the final drama went down on Sept. 28.
"I was watching one of the games on TV and the other on my iPad," Badenhop said. "I went to college with Nolan Reimold, and I'm like, 'Let's see what happens.' And I know Robert Andino a little bit, because we played together on the Marlins, so I'm flipping over, flipping back. And it was really weird, because I'm like, 'There's no way that happened in the span of five or 10 minutes.' I thought it was like a replay."
Badenhop's reaction to Longoria's home run awakened his wife.
"She's like, 'What happened?' And I'm like, 'The Red Sox lost and the Rays won -- they literally just got into the playoffs,'" Badenhop said. "That was just awesome. You hear some fans say that baseball is boring and slow. But the next day, [the way the 2011 season ended is] all people could talk about -- people who probably weren't huge baseball fans."
Sam Fuld, who drove in the first run in the Rays' eighth-inning rally with a bases-loaded walk, wrote a first-person account for grantland.com about what took place that night. Here's the beginning passage from that account by the Rays outfielder:
"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."
Manager Joe Maddon will most remember the resulting refrain from that night.
"When you're living it, you don't really process the whole thing," Maddon said. "But I don't know how many folks texted me or emailed me the entire offseason that it was the best night they had ever witnessed with Major League baseball. And then they asked, 'What was it like for you?' And that seems to be the overriding question and refrain. Everybody pretty much agrees that it was the most exciting night of baseball they had ever seen."
And what about Longoria, the man who finished off the night with an exclamation point? Has he noticed anything different about his treatment in the aftermath of his historic blast?
"It was funny. This offseason I took a trip to New York City, and usually New York City is pretty good about being hospitable to their own athletes and visiting teams and players," Longoria said. "But I swear, I've never seen more doors open and carpets rolled out. I'm not even kidding you."
Longoria said he went to a restaurant that had an hour and a half wait and put his name in the hat for a table. Once the restaurant realized Longoria was in its midst, that wait evaporated.
"It was pretty crazy how one event can shape something in a city," Longoria said. "I think they were obviously so happy that Boston wasn't in the playoffs."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.