Last night and slightly into this morning baseball was at its best. As the final games of the season ended just after midnight, the Wild Card winners were much different than what had been expected at the beginning of the month.
Boston suffered the biggest collapse ever and will be spending their post-season at home. In a season where they got off to a bad start losing their first five games, then went on at times to lead their division, they finished third in the AL East. Their primary problem was pitching. John Lackey, who they signed a $82.5 million contract for 5 years in December of 2009, had the worst year of his career with an ERA of 6.41 - more than two points higher than his career average of 4.10. But even with the pitching problems there is one mainstay in their bullpen - Jonathan Papelbon. And last night with a 3-2 lead the Red Sox handed him the ball in the bottom of the ninth, and to their disappointment Papelbon blew his third save of the year.
As for the other side of the AL Wild Card the Tampa Bay Rays came from behind in the wild card race and took the lead when it mattered - on the last day of the regular season. During game 162 the Rays were down 7 - 0 to the Yankees and it looked like their only chance to get to the playoffs would be if Boston would lose and then the Rays would have to beat them in game 163. It wasn't looking good for the Rays for most of the games. Then suddenly the Rays mounted a ferocious comeback in the eighth and ninth innings that included the 30th home run of the year by Evan Longoria. And the game stayed tied with every baseball fan anxiously waiting until the bottom of the twelfth when Longoria hit his second home run of the night - 31st of the year - that stayed slightly fair win the game for the Rays.
If the AL Wild Card wasn't exciting enough for you there was also an NL Wild Card battle going on. The Atlanta Braves, the team that lead the Wild Card coming into the month, was playing divisional opponent the Philadelphia Phillies. The Braves took the lead in the bottom of the third inning 3-1, but the Phillies came back with runs in the seventh and ninth innings to tie the game up. The Braves offense never resurged after that third inning lead and the Phillies won the game in the thirteenth inning thanks to an RBI single by Hunter Pence. The crucial point of the game though came in the ninth inning when the rookie closer, Craig Kimbrel, experienced one of his worst outings of the year walking three and giving up the tying run, ultimately blowing his eighth save of the year.
Since the Braves couldn't hold on to the lead, the St. Louis Cardinals took the NL Wild Card with a fairly easy victory over the Houston Astros winning 8-0.
What made last night so remarkable besides the down to the wire finishes and extra innings was the teams involved in the games. In one game you had one team fighting to get into the playoffs against one team that already locked in the top spot of their league. With nothing to play for the Phillies didn't just rest and let the Braves them. They played as they did every other game this year - like it mattered. And as for the Baltimore Orioles - they played their hearts out against the Red Sox knowing that no matter what the outcome is they weren't going anywhere after that game. Teams play for pride every day of the year, even if that victory doesn't lead them to the postseason. Congrats to the victors of the Wild Card for battling a long season down to the very end. As for the teams with the biggest Wild Card collapses ever in their respective leagues, the Red Sox and Braves, see you in 2012.
And for those reading this that may not watch baseball and believe it is boring or slow - you missed an amazing day in sports yesterday.