A perfectly wild (card) night of baseball

The last-place Orioles celebrated their walkoff win over the Red Sox like they'd just won the World Series

Sometimes, in spite of itself, baseball is perfect.

Ridiculously, stupidly, exhaustingly, thrillingly, Longoria-ly and Papelbon-eously perfect.

Over five hours on a Wednesday night in late September, when baseball was supposed to be quietly ironing its bunting and hoping people soon would be paying attention again, the game willed itself to incomprehensible greatness.

In four games spread over two wild-card races and two time zones, the entrancing narrative not only held the four central protagonists, but peripherally ensnared the two best teams in the regular season, along with two of the worst.

Where it counted was in Boston and Atlanta, where promising seasons were dying, and in St. Louis and Tampa Bay, where faint heartbeats a month ago became raucous parties just as the postseason beckoned.

As it was, the regular season closed after weeks, days and, finally, hours of resisting. What emerged were epic collapses by the Braves and highly regarded, highly funded Red Sox, and relentless and inspiring finishes by the Cardinals and Rays.

The Rays and Cardinals are in. The Red Sox and Braves out.

And baseball is emotionally spent for it.

By chance, the format that presented perhaps the most compelling regular-season conclusion ever could be out, too. As the single wild-card template turned 18, and the clamor grew to kick it to the curb in favor of advancing two non-division winners per league, the owners and players appeared to be negotiating toward that end.

[Related: Red Sox collapse rocks team's foundation]

If this marked the last of the current design, however, then it more than covered for six division races that lacked anything like drama.

Without it, there’d have been nothing like the ninth inning Wednesday night in Baltimore, where Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon(notes) blew a one-run lead, trudged from the mound, sat on the bench as the lowly Orioles dog-piled on the infield, and waited for news from St. Petersburg. The last ball had fallen just out of the reach of left fielder Carl Crawford(notes), just as his entire first season in Boston had.

The Red Sox had led, 3-2. They lost, 4-3.

The dispatch from Tropicana Field arrived three minutes later, when a 12th-inning home run by Evan Longoria(notes) capped not just a month-long haul-down of the Red Sox, but a five-inning demolition of the Yankees, who played mostly kids in what was for them an insignificant game, and then for the first time in nearly six decades lost a game they’d led by seven runs in the seventh inning or later.

The Rays had trailed, 7-0. They won, 8-7.

What follows for the Rays is simple – they’ll report to Texas to play the Rangers, furthering their unlikely story of competitiveness in a system designed to keep them non-competitive.

[Related: Photos: Rays, Cardinals celebrate playoff berths]

For the Red Sox, whose payroll was four times that of the Rays, what follows is, well, unpredictable. As the team collapsed over the final month, the jobs of general manager Theo Epstein and manager Terry Francona – the architect and contractor of the Red Sox foundation – came in question. That’ll continue as the playoffs start without them, unfathomably.

“We can’t deny this month happened,” Epstein said late Wednesday night.

If they tried, Red Sox fans likely would set them straight.

That the Red Sox would lose, and that they ultimately would lose to the Rays, simply fueled the drama in the season’s last moments, just as the summer game turned toward fall.

Then, too, the National League’s wild-card race amounted to a one-game, simultaneous showdown. The Red Sox would empathize with the Braves, who’d played a 10½-game lead to nothing, then had their closer – the rookie Craig Kimbrel(notes) – blow a ninth-inning lead to the Philadelphia Phillies, the class of the National League.

[Related: Season crashes down on Braves' rookie closer]

By the end, the Braves looked less like chokers than they did arm- and leg-weary casualties of the season. But, still, a little like chokers.

The Braves had led, 3-2. They lost, 4-3.

In a clubhouse in Houston, the Cardinals partied. From forever behind the Braves a month ago, from a time when they’d begun the countdown to bid farewell to Albert Pujols(notes) and, perhaps, manager Tony La Russa – the faces of a world championship and a quite reasonable spell of baseball in St. Louis – the Cardinals were headed to the division series.

They’d won, 8-0.

Fed the 105- (and soon to be 106-) loss Astros, they conducted the evening’s lone blowout. Chris Carpenter, who’d been an ace and – with Adam Wainwright’s(notes) elbow surgery – is again, threw a two-hitter. He’d finished the Astros in 2 hours and 20 minutes, allowing the Cardinals front-row seats as the Phillies – their playoff foes – delivered the necessary win on television.

“It’s unbelievable, you know?” Pujols sputtered afterward, through a champagne waterfall.

It was. For those five hours, baseball was all there was. In scattered ballparks, across psyches hopeful and tattered, on a pitch executed here and a double play turned there, it was perfect.

Just perfect.

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