Rays, Cardinals clinch playoff spots

Tampa Bay Rays rush the field after teammate Evan Longoria hit a 12th-inning home run off New York Yankees relief pitcher Scott Proctor during a baseball game, early on Sept. 29, 2011, in St. Petersburg, Fla. AP

Fans thrilled to a frenzied finish all over the majors on Wednesday night with a startling rally by the Tampa Bay Rays coupled with a Boston Red Sox collapse to get the Rays their American League wild card spot.

Throw in a big win by Chris Carpenter and the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League with a near-miss for Chipper Jones and the Atlanta Braves and it was more than any fan could've asked for. And it's not even October yet.

Minute by minute, inning by inning, the races took shape, only to then suddenly fall apart. But when Tampa Bay's Evan Longoria hit his second home run of the game in the 12th inning to lift the Rays over the Yankees 8-7, everything was all set.

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"One of the greatest days in baseball history," the Yankees' Mark Teixeira said.

And imagine this: Teixeira's team lost.

The final day of the regular season had already shaped up as a wild one, with the playoff picture still a blur. Boston and Tampa Bay tied for the AL wild-card spot, Atlanta and St. Louis even for the NL wild-card slot, not a single postseason pairing set.

Turned out, it took at least three TVs to watch what followed.

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"I think it's really good for baseball," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said, much earlier. "Not so good for my stomach."

Tampa Bay at Texas on Friday in Game 1, Detroit visiting the Yankees that night in the opener of their AL playoff series.

"I can barely breathe, to be honest with you. It doesn't seem real," Longoria said.

St. Louis begins it best-of-five matchup at Philadelphia on Saturday, with Arizona at Milwaukee opening the same day.

"Even though we were in the playoffs, it's been exciting still just knowing you're making it and you still had to play for home field," Brewers ace Zack Greinke said. "It was good."

So, no one-game tiebreakers needed. Pretty nifty way to wrap up things, too, under the current postseason format. Next year, it's expected that each league will produce a pair of wild-card teams.

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 a lead entering September.

Closer Jonathan Papelbon took a 3-2 lead into the ninth at Camden Yards and struck out the first two batters and was later one strike away for ending it. But Chris Davis and Nolan Reimold followed doubles that tied it and Robert Andino hit a single that sliding left fielder Carl Crawford couldn't quite glove to win it for the Orioles 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 earlier, but no doubt Red Sox fans will cringe at the memory of both.

The Rays, meanwhile, rallied from a 7-0 deficit, tying the Yankees on pinch-hitter Dan Johnson's solo homer with two outs in the ninth inning. A roar erupted at Tropicana Field when the Boston loss was posted on the scoreboard. Four minutes later, Longoria homered barely inside the left-field foul pole.

The Cardinals, who trailed the Braves by 10½ games before play on Aug. 26, made it easy on themselves as 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."

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