Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Pressure of a Playoff Push

Upon the
Red Sox and Braves


Last night was one of the best baseball nights I can ever remember. There were four games that mattered, two in each league. On the line was who would be the last team to make the playoffs from each league. Boston and Tampa battling for the American League Wildcard spot and Atlanta and St. Louis doing the same for the National League.

Both races had travelled a similar path. The Braves had an 8.5 game lead over the Cardinals in early September, the Red Sox led by 9 games over the Rays. The playoff schedule looked like a lock. Nothing to do but “play out the string” in baseball lingo. Time to call up the players from AAA and give the big boys a few days rest.

But a funny thing happened on the way to a champagne celebration, losses began to mount for the front runners and the team in the mirror began to be closer than they looked! Then the last night hits and we have four teams tied for the two spots with what amounted to a one game playoff in each league. Now if all four had won there would have been a real one game playoff today, but that didn’t happen.
The Sox endured a rain delay in Baltimore and led 3-2 going into the bottom of the ninth. They sent their closer Jonathan Papelbon out to finish the deal. Then he gave up a two out double followed by another double followed by a sinking line drive single and the game is over and so is the Red Sox’s season. Because in Tampa the hated enemy of the Sox, the Yankees had built a 7-0 lead over the Rays heading into the bottom of the 8th. With Joe Giradi, the skipper of the Yankees saying he was giving his closer and set up men the night off, the Yanks relied on some arms deeper in the bullpen and it ended up hurting the Sox. The Rays rallied with 6 runs in the 8th helped by two hit by pitches and a three run blast by Evan Longoria. Then the unthinkable happened as Dan Johnson hit a pinch hit home run with the count 2-2 and two outs in the bottom of the ninth to tie it up. The Rays won the game on another Longoria homer just moments after the Red Sox game had gone final and the celebration began in St. Petersburg!

The Cardinals took an early 5 run lead in the first against the Astros and never looked back cruising to an easy victory. While they watched in their club house, Atlanta had a one run lead going into the ninth inning and called on their closer to finish the game like the Red Sox. And like the Sox he imploded with walks instead of hits and a sacrifice fly tied the game. Chipper Jones had a chance to secure his place in Braves lore in the bottom of the inning but his two-out line drive in the left center field gap was snagged and the game continued. Then in the 13th it happened, with two outs Hunter Pence was jammed and hit a broken bat blooper between the first and second basemen and with a runner on third the Phillies scored the go ahead run. The Braves would not score in their half of the inning and their season would end as well.

Both teams who had the lead are out of the playoffs and both teams who were counted out are in. The difference last night might be seen in a matter of inches. If Chipper’s ball is a foot further toward left field the Braves win and if the ball in the Red Sox game was a foot higher they might have won. But the truth is there are so many moments that could have made things different. Any two games in April, May, June, July, or August that were losses if the team had won those games would have made last night irrelevant. Both teams felt the enormous pressure of the lead dwindling as they came down the stretch. And while it is true that all games count the same, they don’t all feel the same. The Red Sox and the Braves choked, no matter what they will say. Sure the Cardinals and Rays played well down the stretch but they didn’t have anything to lose. The front runners did and the lost a lot. The chance to be in Post-season play, probably some bonus money for a lot of the players and coaches, some fans who will jump off the band wagon, but most of all they will lose some sleep wondering about what might have been.

Pressure comes to all of us. How we handle it often defines our legacy. That’s why Jesus says to come to him when we are tired and weary. His grace will allow us to stand under the pressures of life.

Last night was the best night in baseball in 50 years! Just remember Red Sox Fans and Braves Fans that the sun still came up this morning. It is just a game, albeit one that passionate fans love with their entire being. The real question for today is can the playoff’s touch the drama of last night? If it does, baseball will have a whole new generation of fans.

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