Bleary-eyed baseball fans savor a grand finale

By Ben Walker/The Associated Press

Jim Leyland was still dazed a day later. So were baseball fans everywhere, trying to explain one of the wackiest wrap-ups to the sport’s regular season. In case you missed it:

— Down to his last strike, a benchwarmer delivered a lightning bolt.

— Desperate to make a catch, the $142 million man let the ball slip away.

— Trying to get it right, an umpire reversed a call.

Pitch by pitch, the playoff picture flipped. Startling collapses and stunning rallies left fans bleary-eyed and a little exhausted, what with a season’s worth of hope, joy and failure wrapped into a single night.

Midnight came, along with more madness. When it was over, Tampa Bay and St. Louis were in, Boston and Atlanta were out.

“That was probably the most dramatic day in the history of the game, it really was,” Texas Rangers star Michael Young said Thursday. “You have those two games with dramatic endings, three games with dramatic endings, just a crazy day.”

Added teammate Ian Kinsler: “Oh, man, we were on the bus, checking in for the plane, getting luggage checked, going through security line and guys are screaming, ‘They tied it up! Baltimore tied it up!”

Cellphones, split screens, three TVs at time, a rain delay in Baltimore — it was hardly enough to keep track of the four teams vying for the wild-card berths in the National and American Leagues on Wednesday, the final day of the regular season.

Leyland and his Detroit Tigers already were assured a trip to the postseason. But the 66-year-old manager was riveted in his office, watching Boston and Tampa Bay play their games.

Leyland turned to Tigers coach Lloyd McClendon for help.

“Trust me, I don’t have one, but McClendon has one of those fancy things you can watch. I don’t know what they call it. Playman,” Leyland said Thursday.

An iPad, actually.

“I could see it. Then it went out because of the satellite or something. I don’t know, it came back on. You could hear it, then you could see it again,” he said. “It was great. We were talking back and forth.”

“You can’t explain this to people, the emotions in baseball. Even from our side. Just watching it. We became fans. After our game, we were the biggest fans there were,” he said. “I don’t know how it all happened. I still don’t. But it was amazing.”

It’s only September, and the playoffs start Friday.

“It was just a cool night,” Yankees ace CC Sabathia said. “I was at home watching it with my son. We got a little setup, so we were able to watch all the games at one time. It was actually a pretty cool night, seeing what happened.”

The Yankees seemed ready to wreck the Rays, taking a 7-0 lead into the eighth inning. But the Rays somehow rallied, with little-used Dan Johnson — batting only .108 this year — launching a tying, pinch-hit home run with two outs and two strikes in the bottom of the ninth.

Evan Longoria ended it in the 12th with a home run that hooked just inside the left-field foul pole for an 8-7 win. It was the first time since 1953 the Yankees had led by at least seven runs in the eighth and lost, STATS LLC said.

Some even compared Longoria’s drive to Bobby Thomson’s famed “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” that capped the New York Giants’ comeback against the Brooklyn Dodgers for the 1951 NL pennant.

Not quite, but this win gave the Rays the AL wild-card spot and capped their rally from a nine-game deficit against Boston in the final 3½ weeks.

“Just when you think you’ve seen everything, something else happens,” Yankees star Derek Jeter said. “It was a dramatic turn of events.”

Boston finished 7-20 and became the first team to miss the postseason after holding that large of an edge entering September.

For the Red Sox, it was an agonizing end. Ace reliever Jonathan Papelbon took a 3-2 lead into the ninth at Baltimore. He was one strike away from finishing when the Orioles struck, and Robert Andino hit a single that sliding left fielder Carl Crawford — signed to that $142 million deal — 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 Orioles won shortly after umpire Scott Barry called Boston’s Jacoby Ellsbury out at first base, but changed the call to safe after consulting with the crew chief. The umps ruled — correctly — that Orioles first baseman Mark Reynolds juggled the ball.

The Braves let their last chance get away, too. Ahead of St. Louis by 10½ games in late August and still up by 8½ on the morning of Sept. 6, Atlanta went into the final day of the regular season tied with the Cardinals for the NL wild card.

St. Louis won early, leaving it up to the Braves. But rookie closer Craig Kimbrel blew a ninth-inning lead against Philadelphia, and the Phillies wound up winning 4-3 in the 13th.

After it was over, Kimbrel had a hard time explaining what went wrong.

“My mind was rushing,” he said. “Things started moving too fast. My head started moving too fast. My brain. I didn’t put it together. It was just too late.”

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AP Sports Writers Rick Freeman and Stephen Hawkins contributed to this report.