Thursday, September 29, 2011

Still We Let It Choke Us

So there I was last night, after playing hockey for the first time in five months, standing in the rink parking lot watching my phone for updates from the Sox-Orioles game. Normally, such a game on the last day of the regular season would have little interest to anyone. At the beginning of September, the Red Sox were in first place, up by 1.5 games on the Yankees and nine on the Tampa Bay Rays. Sadly for Boston fans, the Sox completely collapsed in September and went into last night's game tied with Tampa for wild card spot. The Sox needed a win and a Tampa loss to the Yankees to clinch the wild card; if both Boston and Tampa won or lost, they'd remain tied and have to play another game to decide who gets in.

When I got to the rink at 9:45, the Sox were up 3-2 on the Orioles but in a rain delay in the 5th or 6th inning, while the Yankees were up 7-0 on TB. I figured at the very least, the Sox would survive for at least one more day. We skated for 90 minutes and then headed outside, where I found out that the Sox were still up 3-2 in the 9th and the Yankees shockingly had coughed up their lead and were tied 7-7 in the 10th. The Yanks didn't really care about the outcome, having rested many starters and going through 12 pitchers on the night.

So while we stood there drinking beer, a few of us followed the live game updates on our phones. The Sox had a chance to get a few insurance runs in the top of the 9th but couldn't, so it was to closer Jonathan Papelbon to finish off the last-place O's. He struck out the first two batters quickly and had two strikes on Nolan Reimold before giving up a double. Then another double to tie the game. And then a single to lose it. I switched to the TB-NY game to see what was up with that. It was tied 7-7 in the 12th and Tampa's Evan Longoria stepped up to the plate. He hit his second homer of the game, mere minutes after the Sox lost, to clinch the wild card for TB.

It was all quite shocking, to have what seemed like a sure trip to the playoffs evaporate so quickly. The same thing happened to the Atlanta Braves, who lost last night while St. Louis won to steal the NL wild card. Needless to say, there's much shock and dismay in New England. As a Blue Jays fan, I certainly wasn't rooting for Boston, although I was hoping there would be a play-in game tonight.

And now, of course, folks are rehashing famous past Red Sox chokes, from the similar blown lead in 1978 that ended in Bucky Dent's homer into the screen at Fenway to 1986's World Series collapse vs. the Mets to 2003's loss to the Yankees in the ALCS. The championships in 2004 and 2007 take some of the sting out of it for the locals, but this was pretty brutal to watch.

I can relate, as the Jays blew a 3-1 lead vs. Kansas City in the 1985 ALCS before losing to the eventual champs. Then there was 1987, when the Jays had a 3.5-game lead with a week to go in the season and lost seven straight to finish two games behind the Tigers. I was at UNH and watched several of those games on TV, all of which were nailbiters and went down to the last at-bat. It was rough. The Jays had a talented young team and looked to be on the brink of greatness in '85, but just couldn't get over the hump. It wasn't until 1992 that they finally captured a championship, and then won again the following year. But damn, did those '85 and '87 losses really sting.

But Boston fans can turn to the Patriots, who despite losing an ugly game to Buffalo last weekend are pretty exciting, and the defending champion Bruins, who start their season next week. (The NBA's still in lockout mode, so there's little talk about the Celtics right now.) Hope springs eternal, at least for those teams. As for the Sox, it's going to be a long offseason.

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