|The A's forcing a tie for first in the AL West is just part of the drama that unfolds on a wild Tuesday night. (Getty Images)|
NEW YORK -- It can't match last year.
But maybe it can match last night. Wouldn't that be enough?
Drama in the Bronx. Drama at the Trop. Drama in Oakland.
Drama from coast to coast.
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"That," Raul Ibanez said, "was a lot of fun to be a part of."
Ibanez and the Yankees are playing these final games as if they matter, because they do matter. The Yankees celebrated Tuesday's 12-inning, 4-3 win over the Red Sox as if it was crucial, because it was crucial.
"The last thing I want to get to is that one-game playoff," manager Joe Girardi had said Tuesday afternoon.
The Yankees were staring right at it before Ibanez tied Game 161 with his pinch-hit two-run home run in the ninth. They were staring at a first-place tie with the Orioles, staring at the possibility that if the tie wasn't broken in Game 162 on Wednesday, they would be heading to Baltimore for a Game 163 on Thursday.
That's still possible, but only if the Yankees lose Wednesday and the Orioles win.
After last year, we've learned not to discount anything on the season's final day.
Or the next-to-last day.
Tuesday, three innings after Ibanez tied the game with his home run off Andrew Bailey, he won it with a single off Andrew Miller. Three innings after the Yankees erupted in cheers of relief, they raced onto the field in celebration.
Just awhile after that, the A's were racing onto the field in Oakland, celebrating their newly won first-place tie with the Rangers in the West. They'll play a Game 162 on Wednesday afternoon, a game between two teams already guaranteed playoff spots, but a game handed true meaning because the new playoff system rewards division champions.
"[The old system] had evolved to where the division championship was irrelevant," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said. "Bud Selig took the next step [by adding a second wild card], and it's great."
The Yankees have played all month with that in mind, with thoughts that entering the postseason tournament as a wild card would be taking too much of a risk. They played Tuesday with that in mind, so Girardi used closer Rafael Soriano for two innings for the first time all year.
"I've said it all along, I'm trying to win the division," Girardi explained. "Trying to win the division."
The Yankees can now win it if they beat they simply beat the Red Sox one more time in Wednesday's Game 162. They can bypass a Thursday tiebreaker, and bypass the minefield of Friday's one-game wild-card play-in, and head straight to a division series starting Sunday against the winner of that wild-card game.
You can bet they'll play Wednesday's game every bit as hard as they played Tuesday's (although with Daisuke Matsuzaka starting for the Red Sox, you may want to bet that Wednesday's game will be easier for the Yanks).
They'll play with the same emotion the A's showed in their 3-1 Game 161 victory against the Rangers. The A's sprayed champagne when they clinched an improbable playoff spot Monday night, but they came right back and played Tuesday's game just as hard, because it earned them a chance to play for a division title Wednesday.
So this is what we have on tap on this season's final scheduled day:
-- The Yankees can win the AL East and also lock up the league's best record if they beat the Red Sox.
-- The Orioles can force a tie in the East (and set up a Thursday tiebreaker in Baltimore) if they beat the Rays while the Yankees lose.
-- The A's and Rangers play what amounts to a one-game playoff for the West crown, with the winner advancing to the Division Series and the loser forced to play Friday in a play-in game.
-- The top record in the National League is also at stake, with the Nationals and Reds tied entering the season's final day (with the Nationals owning the tiebreaker because they won the season series between the two teams).
It won't be as dramatic as last year, because no one is going home strictly based on Wednesday's results. The 10 playoff teams were set late Tuesday, when the Dodgers' 4-3 home loss to the Giants allowed the Cardinals to clinch the National League's second wild-card spot.
We know now that the Cardinals will play the Braves on Friday in Atlanta in one wild-card game. We know that the Giants will open one NL Division Series at home on Saturday, and we know that the Tigers will open one AL Division Series at home the same day.
We still don't know who the Giants will be playing (Reds or Nationals), and we still don't know who the Tigers will be playing (most likely the A's or Rangers, but possibly the Yankees).
We don't know either of the teams playing in Friday's AL wild-card game, and we don't know for sure where it will be.
All that will be decided Wednesday (or Thursday if the Orioles can force a tie atop the AL East).
It should be quite a day. It can't match Game 162 last year.
But it might match Game 161 from Tuesday night.
That would be more than enough.