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Baseball catches its breath; End-of-season games left onlookers dazed

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.

"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!' " said the Rangers' Ian Kinsler.

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 on coach Lloyd McClendon's iPad.

"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," Leyland said.

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.

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 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.

Red Sox General Manager Theo Epstein said at a Thursday news conference that manager Terry Francona will not be a scapegoat for the stunning ending to the season.

"We've already talked about it and nobody blames what happened in September on Tito," Epstein said. "That would be totally irresponsible and totally short-sighted."

St. Louis beat Houston 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.

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