Naturally, there are caveats. For golf, it gets exciting when Tiger Woods is in the field (although, let’s be honest here: Tiger’s been getting more play off the field than on over the last two years). With baseball, the excuse is that since the season is so long and has so many games, the true baseball season doesn’t start until the playoffs.
That is, unless the final day of the regular season features four teams battling for two playoff spots with the ultimate result being two of the biggest collapses in Major League Baseball history going down. Then, people will watch.
So for five hours, baseball all of a sudden became the topic of interest in sports, coincidentally as the NBA decided to announce that the 2011-12 season was in jeopardy due to the labor dispute between players and owners.
The Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals battled for the National League Wild Card while the Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays did the same in the American League. The problem for both Boston and Atlanta was that thanks to absolutely horrid Septembers, Tampa Bay and St. Louis were able to surge up the standings and force the hands of their respective competitors to play stressful games down the stretch.
With the Rays and Cardinals playing with nothing to lose, the Red Sox (who had a 9 game lead the first week of September) and the Braves (8 1/2 games at the same time) were hoping they would just go away.
In one perfect storm of baseball karma, the four teams met up with destiny on Wednesday night, and for fans of the comeback story, it was better than Hollywood could have ever dreamed. St. Louis destroyed Houston, 8-0 behind their ace Chris Carpenter, who fired a two-hit shutout and put the Braves on notice. The Braves were facing division rival and best team in baseball, the Philadelphia Phillies.
The Phillies were playing out the string, so to speak, but were also looking to set a franchise record for wins in a single season. The Braves got a good start on their own goal with a home run from Dan Uggla early on. But after leading 3-2 going into the top of the ninth inning with their all-star closer Craig Kimbrel on the hill, the Braves ran out of steam.
Chase Utley hit a sacrifice fly to tie the game at 3-3 and send the game to extras, while former Houston great Hunter Pence drove in the game winner in the 13th inning with a bloop single to right, sending the Braves out of the running.
But the night wasn’t over! In the American League, Boston all but had the Wild Card sewn up in Baltimore, leading 3-2 in the seventh while Tampa Bay was down 7-0 to New York on the strength of two Mark Texeira home runs. Mother Nature made her presence known with a storm in Baltimore to put that game into a rain delay, while at the same time, the Rays woke up against the Yankees.
In an exciting eighth inning, the Rays pushed three runs across before their superstar third baseman Evan Longoria deposited a shot into the left-field bleachers to cut the deficit to 7-6, ratcheting up the doubt as to whether the Red Sox would walk away with the Wild Card.
Just as the game was about to restart with the Orioles batting in the bottom of the seventh, Tampa Bay’s Dan Johnson hit a two-out, two-strike home run down the right field line in the bottom of the ninth to tie that game at 7-7 and send the Tampa Bay faithful into histrionics.
Fast forward to the Sox/Orioles ninth, where longtime closer Jonathan Papelbon was in for the Red Sox looking to send his team to the playoffs yet again. He was looking great, getting the first two outs in relatively easy fashion. But much like the Rays, the Orioles weren’t done playing the spoiler to Red Sox nation. Down to their last strike, the Orioles went double, double and then a single from noted “Red Sox killer” Robert Andino to bring home the two winning runs and shock the baseball world, sending Boston off with a 4-3 loss.
As the game finished on ESPN, the network switched over to bonus coverage of the 12th inning in Tampa Bay, where Longoria was up and had taken a pitch off the plate. Then, just as Boston had got to their locker room, Longoria creamed the next pitch down the left field line. It barely got over the three foot wall just inside the foul pole, sending Tampa Bay to the American League Wild Card with one of the most improbable playoff-clinching wins in history.
In a two-hour span, the fates of four teams were decided on two national networks: ESPN and ESPN2. If you had the extended sports cable or satellite package, MLB Network was showing live look-ins of all the madness of the last three games in rapid-fire fashion, including some incredible reactions from the commentators watching it live.
SportsCenter followed immediately with a 15-minute highlight package of the madness from the American League games, including real-time looks at key moments from both. For noted enthusiasts of the ESPN days of yore when SportsCenter focused on incredible highlight packages as opposed to the numerous talking heads wasting precious air time, it was a blast from the past and a breath of fresh air and other associated cliches.
For one night, anyway, baseball was the most exciting sport on television and it was as if that’s how it has always been. If that same excitement can carry over to the playoffs, one of the most “boring” sports to watch on TV has a chance to redeem itself in the hearts of viewers, bringing the National Pastime back into the homes of millions.