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Wild-card race may pain Red Sox, but it's great for baseball

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In an already improbable month for Boston, rookie Ryan Lavarnway hits two HRs vs. the O's. (US Presswire)  
In an already improbable month for Boston, rookie Ryan Lavarnway hits two HRs vs. the O's. (US Presswire)  

BALTIMORE -- The Red Sox hate this. The rest of us love it.

It kills them. It thrills us.

No matter how it ends now, their collapse -- and possible revival -- means we'll never forget this season.

They might not be able to get it out of their minds. But we won't, either.

And there's still a day left -- a day, or two days, or a month.

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"I think it's really good for baseball," Terry Francona said Tuesday night. "Not so good for my stomach."

The Red Sox manager had said earlier in the day Tuesday that "we can write this ending however we choose." They chose to make the next chapter thrilling and memorable, an 8-7 victory against the Orioles that preserved a tie atop the wild-card race entering the final day of the regular season.

There were other chapters playing out elsewhere Tuesday, from the triple play that helped save the Rays, to the Cardinals comeback that caused the National League wild-card race to be tied going into the final day, as well.

Two playoff spots remain to be claimed Wednesday, or in a play-in game or games on Thursday.

Incredible, in a September that we were sure would include no pennant races.

You really want to thank the Red Sox, because it was their collapse that got this going, and kept us watching. You want to thank them, but you know they don't want to hear it.

"I hope if I stay here, next year we make it easier," David Ortiz said. "This wears you out."

"My goodness," Francona said. "I can't remember being that nervous in a long time."

He was talking about Jonathan Papelbon's 28-pitch bottom of the ninth, about an 11-pitch Nick Markakis at-bat that led to the first out, and a 10-pitch Adam Jones at-bat that provided the final out.

He could have been talking about the whole night ... or the whole month.

He could have been talking about the crazy game at Tropicana Field, about that triple play.

"That sounds about right," Red Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said, accustomed by now to seeing the Rays come back from the dead.

It was Saltalamacchia who got smacked in the chest by a foul tip on Monday night, unwittingly leading to Boston's victory Tuesday.

With Saltalamacchia and Jason Varitek (knee) both unavailable, Francona had little choice to turn to rookie Ryan Lavarnway, who hit 32 home runs in the minor leagues this year but had never started a major-league game behind the plate (he would started just seven big-league games total, all in August and all as a designated hitter).

Sure enough, it was Lavarnway who had the two biggest hits of the game, a three-run home run that gave the Red Sox a 5-1 lead in the fourth inning, and an eighth-inning solo home run that provided the final run the Sox ultimately needed. And it was Lavarnway who provided Boston's biggest defensive play of the night, too, picking up a Matt Wieters roller in the ninth inning and throwing Wieters out at first base.

"I looked at [Papelbon], and the look he gave me was, 'You'd better field this ball,' " Lavarnway said.

Lavarnway talked of being able to wear the Red Sox jersey with pride, now that he had contributed greatly to a victory Boston had to have.

He might want to wait to see how the next day turns out -- or the next couple of days.

When someone said to Francona that he could feel good about his lineup decisions Tuesday, the manager quickly responded, "I haven't felt good about myself for a while."

It's been that kind of month for the Red Sox, one they'll never forget no matter how it ends. It's a month that really has been mostly about them, and not just because they were the team so far ahead, and the team with the huge payroll and even larger expectations.

Remember that this race isn't close so much because the Rays have rallied (Tampa Bay actually had a better record in August than in September), but because the Sox basically fell apart. The Sox are 7-19 this month, and as many have pointed out, if they'd simply gone 10-16 none of these three games in Baltimore would have mattered.

"It's not what we anticipated," Saltalamacchia said. "It's not what we wanted."

It's not what they wanted. It sure is what the rest of us wanted -- and not just those among those of us who love the Rays (a fairly small group) or who hate the Sox (a somewhat bigger group).

It's great theater now, a show we can't turn away from, a book we can't put down.

The Red Sox hope they really can write the ending they choose. The rest of us don't care, so long as it's as thrilling as the ones we've already seen.

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