You can search every page on baseball-reference.com. You can go back through every issue of the Sporting News, from the days when it was "the bible of baseball." Yet it would be impossible to ever find a night in baseball history—or day, before artificial light made night baseball possible—that was better than Wednesday evening. No way. No how. Just couldn't have happened, even keeping in mind that the 200,000th regular-season game in major-league history was played last Saturday.
Those who sat in front of their televisions or laptops or iPads—or however you watch baseball in these days of constantly evolving technology—saw drama at the highest level. It was reality TV at its best, even without people living on islands and subsisting on goat intestines or shooting ping-pong balls out of their nostrils.
It was a truly amazing night, one so magic that it's hard to know where to start other than to set the stage for the evening. The Rays and Red Sox came in tied for the wild card in the American League, and the Braves and Cardinals were knotted for the wild card in the National League.
The ties were untied by the end of the evening, with the Rays and Cardinals rising from the baseball dead to qualify for the playoffs. How it happened stretches the bounds of imagination beyond the Cardinals’ Chris Carpenter's two-hit, 11-strikeout shutout victory over the Astros at Houston, a brilliant performance that turned out to be mundane in light of what happened afterward.
The Braves were three outs away from forcing a tiebreaker game against the Cardinals on Thursday night as they sent Craig Kimbrel, holder of the record for most saves by a rookie, to the mound to close out what they hoped would be a 3-2 victory over the Phillies. Instead, Kimbrel blew the save by giving up a sacrifice fly to Chase Utley.
The Braves' fate was sealed. The game was tied, but Atlanta had the look of a beaten team. It took a while, but Hunter Pence ended the Braves' season with a flare RBI single in the top of the 13th inning off Scott Linebrink to give the NL East champions a 4-3 win.
Thus ended a collapse for the ages. The Braves held a 10 ½-game lead in the wild-card race on August 26. The Cardinals were still 8 ½ games behind on September 6. Yet that was just part of the drama. Another collapse was about to occur in Baltimore where the Red Sox, after sitting out a long rain delay, took a 3-2 lead into the bottom of the ninth inning against the cellar-dwelling Orioles. Closer Jonathan Papelbon struck out the first two batters and the Red Sox seemed, at worst, in line to play the Rays in a tiebreaker game in St. Petersburg on Thursday afternoon.
But like Kimbrel, Papelbon couldn't get the last out in what could be his last Red Sox appearance; he is eligible for free agency after the World Series. Chris Davis and Nolan Reimold hit back-to-back doubles to tie the game, and Robert Andino followed with a game-winning single.
The Red Sox hadn't been eliminated when Andino sealed the Orioles’ victory, but their situation was perilous, as the Rays were tied with the Yankees in extra innings. They didn’t have to wait long for fate, though. Three minutes later, the Rays broke through against the Yankees, and the Red Sox were eliminated. Tampa Bay joined St. Louis as two of the great comeback stories in baseball history.
Evan Longoria led off the bottom of the 12th by lining a Scott Proctor pitch over the left-field fence—just inside the foul pole—to give the Rays an 8-7 victory. That capped the biggest September comeback in major-league history; the Rays had trailed the Red Sox by nine games three days into the season's final month.
So while Red Sox Nation headed to the winter to bemoan their team's fate, call for the head of manager Terry Francona, and put Robert "Bleeping" Andino just a notch below Bucky "Bleeping" Dent on their list of angst-causing light-hitting infielders, Rays Township was jubilant about one of the greatest comebacks in baseball history—and we're just talking about Wednesday's game.
The Rays were down 7-0 going into the eighth inning, but they scored six runs in the frame, making it a one-run game. Down to their last strike in the ninth, Dan Johnson saved the Rays' season with a pinch-hit home run to make it 7-7. Once the Yankees failed to cash in on a first-and-third, no-out situation in the top of the 12th, it seemed inevitable that the Rays would win. Longoria delivered.
With that, the Division Series matchups were set. It will be Yankees-Tigers and Rangers-Rays in the AL, and Phillies-Cardinals and Brewers-Diamondbacks in the NL. As we head into the postseason, we can be assured of one thing: October will have the impossible task of attempting to trump the magic of September 28, 2011, a night that reaffirmed that no sport offers nearly as much drama as baseball.