As late at 11:00pm Eastern it appeared that the Boston Red Sox were heading to the post-season and the Tampa Bay Rays were heading home. The Rays were down big in late innings to the New York Yankees and the Red Sox held a one-run lead over the last-place Baltimore Orioles. Within an hour, however, the entire baseball landscape - and the AL post-season picture - had changed.
While the Red Sox could only watch from their clubhouse during a one-hour-and-twenty-minute rain delay, the Rays stormed back from seven runs down to the Yankees by scoring six in the eighth and another in the ninth (on a two-out, two-strike homerun by September call-up Dan Johnson).
When the Red Sox resumed play, they still looked poised for victory, but an improbable two-out, two-run rally by the Baltimore Orioles off of closer Jonathan Papelbon left the Red Sox stunned and praying for a Yankees' victory in extra-innings. Their prayers would go unanswered, as mere minutes after Robert Andino singled home the winning run for Baltimore, the Rays' Evan Longoria clubbed his second homerun of the night, sending Tampa to the post-season and Boston back home...
Miracle At The Trop
Not even the Rays would have dared to dream of winning the way they won Wednesday night to earn the American League wild card.
"Oh my God. It's really made for some kind of book, whether it's a fairy tale or something," third baseman Evan Longoria said.
"It's tough to do. But we did it somehow."
Longoria hit a three-run homer to cap the Rays' six-run outburst in the eighth as they came close to erasing an early 7-0 deficit.
Then Dan Johnson delivered a pinch-hit homer with two outs and two strikes in the ninth to tie the game.
And then Longoria struck again, with a one-out walk-off homer in the 12th as the Rays capped a wild comeback to beat the Yankees 8-7 and, with the Red Sox loss, win the wild card.
The Rays became the first team to make the postseason after being nine games out in September. They'll open the Division Series on Friday at Texas.
Boston Heartbroken Again
It took only a few minutes.
In a spectacular juxtaposition of dejection and elation Wednesday night, the Red Sox had barely trudged off the field after allowing a pair of two-out runs in the ninth inning of a 4-3 loss to the Baltimore Orioles when Evan Longoria smashed a 12th-inning solo homer to give the Tampa Bay Rays an improbable come-from-behind victory over the New York Yankees at Tropicana Field.
"As soon as we walked in, we saw it," said left fielder Carl Crawford, the former Rays star and, as much as anyone, the face of the Red Sox's collapse.
"I don't think I've ever been a part of something like this. This is a devastating blow to us. We go down in history as one of the worst collapses ever."
Actually, it is the worst.
On Sept. 1, the Red Sox held a nine-game lead in the wild-card standings. No team had ever lost such a large lead in September. But they lost 20 of 27 games this month, fell into a wild-card tie Monday night and were ousted Wednesday after previously indomitable closer Jonathan Papelbon allowed Nolan Reimold's game-tying double and a single by Robert Andino, the biggest Red Sox killer of them all.
On the scale of collapses, perhaps only the Berlin Wall was greater.
"This is one for the ages, isn't it?" general manager Theo Epstein said from a morgue-like clubhouse. "With what's going on in those two games and how horribly we played in September, we can't sugarcoat this. This is awful. And we did it to ourselves, put ourselves in a position for a crazy night like this to end our season.
"It shouldn't have been this way. We were 7-20 in September. We go 9-18, we're where we want to be. Nine and 18 is winning one-third of your games. The worst teams in baseball win one-third of their games. There's no excuse. We did this to ourselves."
Meanwhile, in the National League, similar drama was brewing with the Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals tied atop the NL Wild Card race. The Cardinals took an early lead over the sad-sack Houston Astros, cruising to a victory.
For much of the night, it appeared that Atlanta would join St. Louis in the win column and in a tie-breaking Game 163, but it wasn't to be when the Braves blew a ninth-inning lead and then dropped their game, 4-3, to the Phillies in extra innings...
Cardinals Complete Improbable Journey To Post-season
Five hits by the first five hitters. Seven hits and five runs in the first inning. And only two hits given up and a season-high 11 strikeouts recorded in nine innings by right-hander Chris Carpenter.
That recipe Wednesday night earned the Cardinals an 8-0 victory over the Houston Astros, their 90th of the season, and enabled them to pull off one of the greatest comebacks in major league history. The Cardinals claimed the National League wild-card berth after being 10 1/2 games behind the Braves on Aug. 25.
The Cardinals, who won 23 of their last 32 games, oddly owe much to the team they now will play -- the Philadelphia Phillies. The Phils, though they had clinched the NL Eastern championship and home-field advantage through the playoffs, beat the Braves three straight games in Atlanta.
The Cardinals were only 67-63 on Aug. 24 after losing three straight games at home to the Los Angeles Dodgers, and manager Tony La Russa called a meeting with his players to discuss the rest of the season.
"After that Dodgers series, we talked about not embarrassing ourselves, but going out and playing hard the rest of the year," Carpenter said.
"We could have laid down a long time ago. We were already out of it. People were telling us we were done. Everybody thought we were out of it. We just decided to go play and not embarrass ourselves."
Carpenter, who has 14 no-decisions, finished 11-9 after starting out 1-7.
"That's one of the best games I've ever seen him pitch," injured right-hander Adam Wainwright said.
La Russa said Yadier Molina told him that catching Carpenter "was like playing catch."
Right-hander Kyle Lohse, who was slated to start a potential wild-card play-in game Thursday against Atlanta, likely will open Game 1 of the NL Division Series at Philadelphia on Saturday.
Kimbrel's Brilliant Season Ends On Sour Note For Atlanta
All season, the Braves' youthful bullpen was at the heart of the team's success.
When Atlanta's collapse reached its inevitable and painful conclusion Wednesday, the bullpen was at the heart of that, too.
Rookie right-hander Craig Kimbrel, the team's previously rock-solid closer, couldn't control his emotions in the ninth inning against Philadelphia. He blew a 3-2 lead, giving up a leadoff single and walking three.
The Phillies wound up winning 4-3 in 13 innings, eliminating the Braves from playoff contention. The Cardinals, who beat the Astros earlier Wednesday, grabbed the NL wild card.
Manager Fredi Gonzalez said that he wouldn't use youth as an excuse. Answering the suggestion that Kimbrel and left-hander Jonny Venters were running on fumes, he said, "If we hold their appearances down, maybe we're a .500 club."
While Tim Hudson, who got a no-decision, was praising Kimbrel, the 23-year-old rookie sat, waiting for the media to descend on him, in full uniform except for his jersey. Even his cap.
He looked at his hands as Hudson was saying, "We wouldn't be here without him. He's been a stud all year. He's probably Rookie of the Year. He's a great kid."
And Jones was saying, "It's probably my fault. I should have calmed him down. I thought about it, but then I thought, 'No, he can handle it.'"
Although he had 46 saves this season, a big-league record total for a rookie, in this game, Kimbrel couldn't keep it together.
"My mind was rushing," he said. "Things started moving too fast. My head started moving too fast. My brain. I didn't put it together. It was just too late when I felt like I could.
"It was tough. It was tough to be so close and then have the feeling like it was falling out of your hand. And that's the feeling I have now."
But center fielder Michael Bourn wouldn't put it all on Kimbrel.
"We had our chances," Bourn said. "Not just this game. You can go weeks before."
Jones knows when it went south: Sept. 19 against the Marlins.
"When you lose a ground ball in the lights and the next guy hits a two-run homer to beat you," he said, "you kind of get a feeling something's out of your control. It just seemed like from that point on we were playing more to protect the lead than to go out and extend it."