Former Husker Dan Johnson's ninth-inning home run last night with two outs and two strikes helped the Tampa Bay Rays complete a comeback over the New York Yankees to secure the American League Wild Card following a loss by the Boston Red Sox to the Baltimore Orioles. Johnson, who had been in the minors for most of the season, put Cory Wade's 2-2 changeup over the right field wall to tie the game at 7-7.
"I kept thinking, 'Stay fair. Stay fair,' " Johnson said. "When it did, I thought, 'I can't believe it happened again.' "
A consensus first-team All-American for the Huskers in 2001, Wednesday night's homer was not Johnson's first dramatic blast in a Rays' uniform. During the Rays' miraculous worst-to-first season in 2008, Johnson joined the Major League club on Sept. 8 after spending most of the season at Triple-A Durham. The following day with a 1 ½ game lead over the Red Sox for first place in the AL East, the Rays took a 3-2 lead into the bottom of the eighth, but a two-out two-runner homer by Jason Bay gave the Red Sox a 4-3 lead heading into the top of the ninth and closer Jonathan Papelbon on the mound. Johnson led off the inning for Tampa Bay by pitch hitting for Justin Ruggiano and watched Papelbon's first five pitches before jumping on a fastball to tie the game. Tampa Bay would add another run off Papelbon later in the inning and would go onto to win its first division title and make the World Series for the first time in club history.
On Wedneday, The Rays were in a deep hole right away following a grand slam from Mark Teixeira in the top of the second that pushed the Yankees' lead to 5-0. Teixeira would add a solo shot in the fourth and a homer from Andruw Jones in the fifth put the Rays behind 7-0. Tampa Bay's comeback started in the bottom of the eighth when Sam Fuld drew a bases-loaded walk and Sean Rodriguez was hit-by-pitch to plate two runs. Following a strikeout from Desmond Jennings and a sac fly from B.J. Upton, the Rays had runners on first and second with two outs and Evan Longoria up. Longoria took the first pitch he saw from Luis Ayala for a three-run shot over the left field wall to get the Rays within one run at 7-6.
After the Yankees went 1-2-3 in the ninth, Wade replaced Ayala on the mound for New York and retired Ben Zobrist and Casey Kotchman in order to get the first two outs of the ninth. That was when manager Joe Madden inserted Johnson for Fuld with the Rays' playoff hopes in the balance. Following the game, Madden said he would have batted Fuld instead if there had been a runner on, but with the bases empty, he thought of Johnson's power.
Following Johnson's game-tying shot, the two AL East squads played two more innings of scoreless baseball, before Longoria hit his second homerun of the game to complete the dramatic comeback. The win came just moments after the Orioles made a comeback of their own over the Red Sox, which allowed the Rays to take sole possession of the Wild Card.