Rays-Yankees key start of MLB playoffs

Published 2:27 am Friday, September 30, 2011

The Associated Press

Pretty neat way to warm up for the playoffs, huh?

A benchwarmer hitting .108 saves Tampa Bay. A $142 million star lets it slip away for Boston. A rookie closer falters in Atlanta. An ace delivers for St. Louis.

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Wild-card Wednesday lived up to its billing, and then some. Fans needed three TVs, and maybe a few cups of joe to see how it all turned out for Joe Maddon, Joe Girardi and Chipper Jones.

“One of the greatest days in baseball history,” New York Yankees star Mark Teixeira said.

Minute by minute, inning by inning, the races took shape. One out to go, one strike to go. Then, it all fell apart. Startling comebacks, historic collapses.

And when Evan Longoria hit his second home run of the game, connecting after midnight at Tropicana Field in the 12th inning to lift the Rays over the Yankees 8-7, everything was all set.

It’s not even October yet. So get ready, no rest for the bleary eyed.

The playoffs start Friday, and a marquee matchup is already on deck at Yankee Stadium. Justin Verlander, having won the pitchers’ Triple Crown by leading the AL in wins, ERA and strikeouts, starts for Detroit against New York ace CC Sabathia at 8:37 p.m. EDT.

A few hours earlier, the best-of-five matchup between the wild-card Rays and Rangers opens in Texas. Jeff Niemann pitches for Tampa Bay against C.J. Wilson.

The NL brackets begin Saturday. Roy Halladay is lined up to start for the Phillies when they host the wild-card Cardinals, while Arizona and ace Ian Kennedy visit Yovani Gallardo and Milwaukee.

“It’s good to finally know who we’re playing,” Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson said.

So, no one-game tiebreakers needed. Nice how things wrapped up, too, under the current postseason format — next year, it’s expected that each league will produce a pair of wild-card teams.

Going into the last day of this regular season, no one was quite sure who they’d be facing.

“This is what it’s all about. We talk about playing meaningful games in September so you can get to October,” Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. “Once you get into October, it’s really fun to see who is going to be that guy that steps up and lights that moment where it’s on him. You see it every year, somebody steps up big you don’t think is going to. Those are special times.”

Certainly Dan Johnson wasn’t on anyone’s hit list to make a huge impact. But after the Rays rallied from a seven-run deficit and made it 7-6, it was his turn. With two outs and two strikes in the bottom of the ninth, he launched a pinch-hit homer to tie it, and the Rays went on to win.

The Red Sox will have all winter to lament how they lost.

Boston held a nine-game lead over Tampa Bay on the morning of Sept. 4, but finished 7-20. The Red Sox became the first team to miss the postseason after holding that large of an edge entering September.

Closer Jonathan Papelbon took a 3-2 lead into the ninth at Camden Yards and struck out the first two batters. Chris Davis and Nolan Reimold followed with doubles that tied it, and Robert Andino hit a single that sliding left fielder Carl Crawford — signed to that $142 million deal in the offseason — couldn’t quite snag. The Orioles won 4-3.

The ball that escaped Crawford was much harder to field than the one that rolled under Bill Buckner’s glove so many years ago, but no doubt Red Sox fans will cringe at the memory of both.

“End of season like this, to make Boston go home sad, crying, I’ll take it all day,” Andino said.

The Cardinals, who trailed the Braves by 10 1/2 games before play on Aug. 26, made it easy on themselves as Chris Carpenter pitched them to an 8-0 win at Houston.

An hour or so later, St. Louis was in the playoffs when the Braves blew it. Philadelphia nicked closer Craig Kimbrel for a tying run in the ninth and won 4-3 in the 13th at Turner Field.

“This is tough,” Braves catcher Brian McCann said. “This is one of the worst feelings I’ve ever had coming off a baseball field.”