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Baseball At Its Best

The last night of the regular season showed just how special baseball can be.

A lot can change between going to bed one night and waking up in the morning, and this morning was one of those times. It also showed just how special baseball can be, at its best.

The Boston Red Sox and the Atlanta Braves both were on the cusp of making the playoffs a few short weeks ago, and both folded down the stretch to lose out as the Tampa Bay Rays in the American League and the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League earned the Wild Cards on the last day of the regular season.

But there is so much more to the stories, and both were compressed into just one night.

When yours truly went to bed last night, the Yankees led the Rays 7-0 and the Red Sox were in a rain delay in Baltimore, leading 3-2. You figured at that point that, even should Boston lose, the worst that could happen would be that there would be a playoff game today to determine who would advance.

But late last night, when the Red Sox blew a two-out and nobody on lead in the ninth and lost 4-3, and Tampa Bay came all the way back against New York and won in extra innings on an Evan Longoria homer, shockingly Boston was out and Tampa Bay was in.

But who would the Rays be playing? That was not determined until last night either, when the Texas Rangers had to beat the Los Angeles Angels to claim the two-seed in the American League. Since Tampa Bay is in the same division as the Yankees, they cannot play New York in the first round, and thus the Rays will be facing Texas when the playoffs get under way tomorrow.

Had the Rangers lost last night, the Detroit Tigers would have gotten the two-seed and would have hosted the Rays, but instead the Tigers will now open on the road in New York.

Much the same was the case in the National League, where the Milwaukee Brewers and the Arizona Diamondbacks were in a last-day battle for the two-seed. And there were the Braves and the Cardinals with the Wild Card on the line, and Atlanta also blowing a ninth-inning lead and losing in extra innings while the Cardinals cruised to victory and claimed the final NL spot.

Because St. Louis is not in the division with the Philadelphia Phillies, who finished with baseball's best record, the Cardinals are going to have the dubious pleasure of facing Philly in the opening round.

And the Brewers and D-backs? Milwaukee won last night, Arizona lost, the Brewers claim the two-seed and will host Arizona in the other National League series.

All in all, last night was, if nothing else, a nightmare for those who try to sell tickets and make travel arrangements as there were literally a myriad of possibilities of who would play where and against whom when the postseason gets under way.

A lot of people these days seem to see baseball as boring, as some second-rate sport, but after last night, it would be hard for anyone to justify that. The game itself is at times leisurely, and sure, when the Twins are playing the Royals on the final day with nothing at stake, that game in and of itself may be "boring".

But last night we saw the best of baseball. Collapses took place that will be talked about for a long time, three decisive games were lost in either the ninth or extra innings, and two teams that were so far on the fringe that yours truly was hard pressed a month ago to continue including them in my columns as contenders are improbable postseason contestants.

A word about spoilers. For anyone among you who might be a casual fan, and who thinks that only teams in the playoffs can get excited at the end of a season, take a look at the Orioles' reaction last night when they put the final nail in the Red Sox' coffin, which was then pounded into place later by the Rays.

Last night showed baseball at its best. Fans in Atlanta and Boston won't want to hear that, and may not want to watch another game until spring training or until next April.

But when everything clicks into place on the final day and playoff possibilities and matchups change multiple times in one night -- there is just nothing better.

Photographs by spatulated, Triple Tri, and chrischappelear used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.