Rays, Cardinals soar in September to make playoffs

It was a September to remember for all the right reasons for the Tampa Bay Rays and St. Louis Cardinals, and one to forget for the Boston Red Sox and Atlanta Braves.

Who would have thought the final playoff berths would be decided not only on the last day of the regular season, but also in extra innings and in incredibly dramatic fashion?

That was the case in both leagues. In fact, the Red Sox and Rays were one strike away from Boston going to the playoffs, but somehow, Tampa Bay earned the wild card berth in the American League and the Red Sox went home after a brutal final month that saw them go 7-20.

Dan Johnson's two-out, pinch-hit homer in the ninth inning with two strikes saved the Rays, forging a deadlock against the Yankees going into extra frames. Evan Longoria, whose three-run blast highlighted a six-run eighth, then won it in the 12th with a solo blast for an 8-7 final.

As the Rays were erasing their seven-run deficit, the Red Sox were about to finish off the Orioles, but Jonathan Papelbon gave up a pair of two-out runs in the ninth inning, including the winning RBI single to Robert Andino in a 4-3 final.

"We tried to stay in the moment so much," a dejected Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "Whatever happened three weeks ago, the mess we got ourselves in, we needed to take care of business today and we didn't."

Because of that, the Rays wiped out a nine-game deficit in the wild card race, starting September 4. No team had ever overcome that many games in September to get to the postseason.

"I love what the Rays do and create a first within the organization, but now we've done something as a first for Major League Baseball," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "It's all on the guys, it's all on the coaches. If you're with us on a daily basis, the work routine, the camaraderie, the coaches' preparation is outstanding. That's how we're able to overcome a nine-game deficit going into September."

For the Rays, they'll make a second straight appearance in the playoffs facing Texas in the first round. The AL West-champion Rangers secured home-field advantage for the first round with a 3-1 win over the Angels Wednesday. Game 1 of that Division Series is Friday at 5:07 p.m. (et).

The Rays, who lost in five games to the Rangers last year, are trying to follow in the footsteps of an incredible story from 2010. On the final day of that season, the Giants beat the Padres to win the NL West. San Francisco went on to win the World Series over the Rangers.

The Yankees will head to the playoffs hosting the AL Central-champion Detroit Tigers on Friday at 8:37 p.m. (et) in that best-of-five Division Series.

While Wednesday's game didn't matter as far as results were for New York, manager Joe Girardi used 11 pitchers in the last game, although their bullpen wasn't really taxed as David Robertson, Mariano Rivera and Rafael Soriano all sat.

"Don't get any of us wrong, we're trying to win these games," said Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira, who hit a grand slam and solo homer Wednesday. "At the same time we have to be smart. We're not going to push our bullpen, throw guys out there that maybe need a rest. But when we're out there, we're trying to win."

This will be just the just time the Yankees will face the Tigers in the playoffs. In 2006, Detroit won three straight contests to beat New York in four in the first round and then lost to St. Louis in the World Series.

The pitching matchup for the opener is expected to be CC Sabathia for the Yankees against likely AL Cy Young winner Justin Verlander, who led the majors with 24 wins.

In the National League, the Braves mirrored the Red Sox's collapse, having owned a 10 1/2-game lead on the Cardinals on August 25.

Atlanta's 10-20 stretch run was embodied in a 4-3 loss to the Phillies on Wednesday. The Braves held a 3-2 lead in the ninth, but closer Craig Kimbrel blew his third save of the month and Hunter Pence knocked in the game-winner in the 13th.

By the time Philadelphia completed its comeback, St. Louis had already wrapped up an 8-0 victory over the Astros behind Chris Carpenter's two-hit shutout. The Cardinals watched the Braves' loss in the clubhouse, and celebrated its postseason berth in style.

They'll have two days to rest prior to opening their Division Series against the NL East champion Phillies, who set a franchise record with their 102nd victory on Wednesday. Roy Halladay, who threw a no-hitter against the Reds in Game 1 of the NLDS last year, is expected to start opposite Jaime Garcia in the opener.

"They're a good team, they can hit," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said of the Cardinals. "They were a challenge for us. At the same time I look at it, they've got good hitters but they can be a little weak on defense. But they've got talent in their bullpen. They've got big arms."

The NL Central champion Milwaukee Brewers also set a club record for wins (96) with a 7-3 victory over the Pirates Wednesday, securing home-field advantage in the opening round against the Diamondbacks. Saturday begins Milwaukee's second playoff series since 1982.

"It means a lot to have the second best record in the National League," said Brewers pitcher Yovani Gallardo, who will get the starting nod in Game 1. "I'm very excited. I can't wait for Saturday."

Arizona, in the postseason for the first time since 2007, took the West Division by eight games over the second-place Giants, and beat the Brewers four times in seven meetings in the regular season.

This is the first postseason matchup for the Phillies-Cardinals and Brewers- Diamondbacks.