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MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL

Cardinals, Rays earn postseason spots on wild final night

St. Louis and Tampa Bay complete two of the greatest stretch runs to win the NL and AL wild-card playoff berths as Atlanta and Boston suffer two spectacular September collapses.

September 28, 2011|By Kevin Baxter
  • Tampa Bay's Evan Longoria, far left, is congratulated by teammates after hitting a walk-off home run in the 12th inning of the Rays' 8-7 victory over the New York Yankees on Wednesday.
Tampa Bay's Evan Longoria, far left, is congratulated by teammates… (Steve Nesius / Reuters )

Let's see the playoffs top that.

On what was the most nail-biting conclusion to a regular season in baseball history, the St. Louis Cardinals and Tampa Bay Rays completed two of the greatest stretch runs to win the National and American league wild-card playoff berths while the Atlanta Braves and Boston Red Sox suffered the two most spectacular September collapses of all time.

But what happened isn't nearly as dramatic as how.

Tampa Bay, which trailed 7-0 in the eighth inning, clinched its playoff berth by beating the New York Yankees, 8-7, when Evan Longoria homered in the 12th, just minutes after the Red Sox blew a ninth-inning lead and lost in Baltimore, 4-3.

In the National League, the Braves coughed up the lead in the ninth and the game in the 13th, falling to the Philadelphia Phillies, 4-3, and giving the NL's wild-card spot to the Cardinals, who shut out Houston, 8-0, earlier in the night.

The Rays will open the playoffs on Friday against the Texas Rangers. The Cardinals earned the right to face the Phillies, beginning Saturday in Philadelphia.

In the other division series, the Yankees will host the Detroit Tigers and the Arizona Diamondback will take on the Milwaukee Brewers.

Boston led Tampa Bay by nine games in the wild-card race on Sept. 3; no team has ever blown a bigger lead in the final month. But the Red Sox had to work to do it.

After waiting out an 86-minute rain delay in the seventh inning of their final game, they were an out away from beating Orioles, at worst forcing a one-game playoff, when closer Jonathan Papelbon gave up two runs on consecutive hits by Chris Davis, Nolan Reimold and Robert Andino.

That result flashed on the scoreboard in St. Petersburg, Fla., just as the Rays and Yankees were about to begin the bottom of the 12th.

The Rays, who had two hits entering the eighth, rallied for six runs in the inning, three coming on a Longoria homer. Tampa then tied the score in improbable fashion in the ninth when pinch-hitter Dan Johnson — batting .109 and down to this last strike — hit his first home run since April, just inside the right-field foul pole.

"I was up in the [batting] cage and one of the security guys ran up and said, 'Hey, you're hitting,'" Johnson said. "So I ran back down and I was just trying to get a good pitch to hit and it ended well for me. I'm just so fortunate to be able get that chance and then capitalize on it."

The Rays capitalized too, when Longoria hit his walk-off shot just inside the foul pole in left.

But if the Red Sox's collapse was the most epic in history, the Braves weren't far behind. They led the NL wild-card race by 81/2 games on Sept. 5 — and led the Phillies 3-2 entering the ninth with closer Craig Kimbrel on the mound. But Kimbrel, a rookie who tied for the league lead with 46 saves, couldn't close out the most important game of the season, walking three and giving up Chase Utley's tying sacrifice fly.

Hunter Pence won it for the Phillies four innings later when his two-out blooper, which barely got out of the infield, drove in Brian Schneider and sent Atlanta to its fifth straight defeat.

The only team that made things easy on itself Wednesday was the Cardinals, who routed Houston behind a two-hit shutout from Chris Carpenter.

Like the Cardinals, Carpenter saved his best for when it mattered most; the shutout marked the third time this month he pitched as least eight innings without giving up a run.

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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