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December 12, 2011
In 136 major league seasons, there's never been a more dizzyingly dramatic day than Sept. 28, 2011. The Red Sox and the Braves may disagree, but for everyone else it's a date that will live in ecstasy
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December 12, 2011

Best. Night. Ever.

In 136 major league seasons, there's never been a more dizzyingly dramatic day than Sept. 28, 2011. The Red Sox and the Braves may disagree, but for everyone else it's a date that will live in ecstasy

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"I've got to prepare for something," Westmoreland said. Zimmer laughed. "You didn't expect that an hour ago, did you?"

For the next 87 minutes MLB Network did not take a commercial break, cutting so furiously between New York--Tampa Bay, Boston-Baltimore and Philadelphia-Atlanta that it sometimes seemed as if David Ortiz played for the Braves. Baseball may be old-fashioned, but modern technology complements it to perfection. You could have been monitoring one game on your TV, another on your phone and a third on your iPad. In fact, that's what the Rangers were doing at Angel Stadium, even though they didn't have a rooting interest. "We're yelling at the traveling secretary to let us stay and watch the end of all the games," says pitcher Darren O'Day. "He let us stay for about an hour."

By the 13th inning the Phillies were almost as deep into their bullpen as the Yankees, but five of the top six hitters in their lineup were still in the game. First baseman Ryan Howard was the only one out, replaced by centerfielder Michael Martinez. In the ninth the Braves walked Hunter Pence to bring up Martinez, and he fouled out with the bases loaded. In the 11th they intentionally walked Pence to face Martinez, and he flew out with two runners on. The Braves, who had tried to acquire Pence at the trading deadline from Houston, refused to let him beat them.

But when Pence came up in the 13th, with runners at the corners, two outs and Martinez on deck, the Braves changed course. Not only did they pitch to Pence, but Manuel noticed that they had first baseman Freddie Freeman in, holding the runner on. Reliever Scott Linebrink bore a fastball in on Pence's hands, breaking his bat. All Pence could do was muscle a squibber to the opposite field, but it sneaked over Freeman's head, bounced twice on the infield dirt and rolled into short right. By the time second baseman Dan Uggla corralled it, 120 feet from home plate, the go-ahead run had scored. "Pence couldn't have thrown it any better," Freeman says. The next batter, Martinez, fouled out again.

The hit gave the Phillies their 102nd victory, a new franchise record, and Manuel his 646th with the club, another franchise record. But Manuel still calls it a sad ending. In the Phillies' bullpen, reliever David Herndon had a different view. "It was a credit to all our veteran guys who were banged up and could have said they didn't want to play," says the righthander, who earned the first save of his career when he retired Freeman on a double play. Freeman, the best rookie position player in the National League—he would finish second to Kimbrel in the Rookie of the Year voting—and the Braves' most consistent hitter, sat in full uniform 30 minutes after the game, unable to speak. Chipper Jones told Freeman what starting pitcher Tim Hudson was telling Kimbrel: "It's not your fault. We wouldn't even be here without you."

In Houston the Cardinals rushed from the cafeteria to the clubhouse, chanting a battle cry coined by shortstop Rafael Furcal: "Happy flight! Happy flight!" They were headed for Philadelphia and the NLDS.

Jack McCormick, the Red Sox' traveling secretary, arranged a Delta 757 jet at Baltimore-Washington Airport that would take the team to one of three destinations: Dallas for the ALDS, Tampa Bay for a one-game playoff or Boston for a long winter. The Red Sox had many chances to change the direction of that plane. In the seventh inning Ortiz tried to stretch a single into a double, and Orioles centerfielder Adam Jones threw him out. In the eighth Scutaro tried to score after hesitating between second and third, and Jones started a relay that nailed him at the plate. Lavarnway came up four times with at least two runners on and didn't drive in any of them.

Still, the Red Sox were 77--0 when leading after eight innings, and they were ahead by a run when Baltimore third baseman Chris Davis batted against Papelbon with two outs and no one on in the ninth. Davis attacked the first pitch he saw and lined it into the rightfield corner. The Rangers, who had traded Davis to the Orioles in July, erupted in Anaheim: "Chip hit a double! Chip hit a double!" Most of them were sitting on the bus inside Angel Stadium, trying to get a signal on their iPads. Some were going through security checks in the clubhouse, huddled around an iPhone with the MLB At Bat 11 app.

Davis, fighting a pulled groin, was replaced by pinch runner Kyle Hudson, a former wide receiver at Illinois. Chants from Boston fans and Baltimore fans mashed together. Orioles batting coach Jim Presley talked to the team in late September about Papelbon, how his fastball seems to rise at the last instant, and hitters need to bring him down. Outfielder Nolan Reimold picked out a waist-high fastball and pounded it to right center. Hudson ran a fly pattern to the plate. He didn't see the ball clear the fence for a game-tying ground rule double. The clock struck midnight.

Showalter just wanted the inning to get to Andino, and he realizes how nutty that sounds, considering Andino had never played a full season before. But he remembered Andino's hit against Papelbon a week earlier. As Andino came up, he noticed Carl Crawford take a few steps forward in leftfield. Crawford, who spent his whole career in Tampa Bay before signing a $142 million contract with Boston last December, was a lemon all season for the Red Sox. Andino sliced a sinking line drive to left, and as he saw Crawford lunge forward, he yelled, "Don't catch it!"

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