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One year later, recalling baseball's Best Night Ever

Evan Longoria could be in a similar situation when the regular season concludes on Wednesday, but it would take a lot to ever surpass what he says was his personal hit of a lifetime.

"I mean, there's really only one -- the home run in Game 162, the second one," Longoria says now. "It was probably the biggest hit of my career, maybe one of the biggest hits I'll ever get. It was just an unbelievable memory, a great day overall, and something that's just hard to put into words."

The Rays' star made the last swing of the 2011 regular season, a mighty rip seemingly everyone saw and hung on, the exclamation point on what is simply remembered now as "Best Night Ever."

Longoria's rocket over the left-field wall off Yankees reliever Scott Proctor completed a turn of overlapping events that will be fabled in Major League Baseball history. The Rays and Cardinals were going to the postseason, and the Red Sox and Braves were going home.

Friday's one-year anniversary will cause many people to remember where they were that night, and it will tease the imagination as we wonder what this final Wednesday might be like.

Longoria didn't fully digest the 2011 finale until much later.

"There were two strikes, which I didn't know until I went back and looked again later," he said during an interview with earlier this month. "The day was so slow up until that point, and then after that it was so fast that there were subtleties about that at-bat that I didn't remember, and that was one of them -- that there were two strikes in the at-bat."

Baseball's long history teems with tales of pennant-race thrillers, endings that brought us Bobby Thomson's nonpareil "Shot Heard 'Round The World" in 1951; Bucky Dent's unlikely blast at Fenway in 1978; the classic 2009 finale at the Metrodome in a one-game tiebreaker between the Twins and Tigers; and the consequences of "Merkle's Boner" way back in 1908.

But no one ever saw anything like Sept. 28, 2011.

"Since that night I've watched and rewatched the highlights of those last games of 2011," wrote Tony La Russa, then St. Louis' manager, in his new memoir, "One Last Strike."

"A baseball life like mine just thrills to sights and sounds like these. The tension and compelling finishes to the games in Baltimore, Tampa Bay and Atlanta will be talked about forever."

* * *

It was the last year of one Wild Card per league, and everyone was prepared for at least one tiebreaker, maybe more, entering the flurry of Game 162s.

It also was the first year of what would be a two-year run for Wednesday completions on the regular season's master schedule. In the past, the season typically ended on Sunday -- which it will in 2013, in fact. A Wednesday-night closeout meant a prime-time takeover in living rooms across America and gatherings after work where multiple baseball screens ruled.

Six division champs were already in: Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Arizona in the National League, and New York, Detroit and Texas in the American League. The Wild Card was up for grabs in both leagues, and there were six games that mattered in determining the postseason matchups.

In the NL, St. Louis had wiped out an astounding 10 1/2-game deficit, and was finishing the schedule at Houston. That was the Central Time Zone game, and Chris Carpenter was starting for La Russa's Redbirds. The Braves were in survival mode at home against the Phillies, whose 101 wins had led the Majors. The Cardinals and Braves entered the night with identical 89-72 records, and if both won or both lost, they would play a tiebreaker in St. Louis.

In the AL, the Red Sox had led the Wild Card race by nine games after Sept. 2, and the only question was whether they or the Yankees would be AL East champ, with the other going in as the Wild Card. But Boston's Wild Card lead gradually vanished, and Tampa Bay finally pulled even on that final Monday, when the O's beat the Red Sox and the Rays beat the Yankees. The Red Sox and Rays won on Tuesday, so each went into the last day at 90-71. Rays manager Joe Maddon had his clubhouse manager send a bottle of 2008 Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon to Orioles manager Buck Showalter, along with the message "GO GET 'EM!"

There was also the matter of deciding home-field advantage in both leagues among division champs. Entering the final day, Texas was one game ahead of Detroit in the standings, and it was a huge issue; the Wild Card could not play a Division Series against its own division's champion, so because both Wild Card contenders were in the East, that home-field edge would decide who would host the Rays or Red Sox, and who would open the playoffs at Yankee Stadium. The Brewers had a one-game lead over the D-backs in that NL race for home-field advantage, so all scheduling was up in the air.

Commissioner Bud Selig watched the sequence of games at home "like a fan" after returning from Rosh Hashanah services. His top executives oversaw a watch party at the new MLB Fan Cave in Manhattan, tracking everything through MLB Network and ballpark feeds on the 15-screen Cave Monster. Fans and players watched iPads or mobile phones through the At Bat app, which streamed everything live via MLB.TV. Those sitting at a computer could watch four games at once with MLB.TV. At sports bars, heads swiveled. How we followed it was part of what made it special.

"You couldn't have written a script with a game in Baltimore and a game in Tampa all happening within three minutes," Selig said. "The night was absolutely extraordinary. There's nothing that was even close to this. ... Only baseball could produce a night like this."

* * *

It was not immediately apparent that Sept. 28 would be a night to remember.

St. Louis jumped out to a five-run lead over Houston in the first inning, and with Carpenter in bulldog mode, that figured to be a lock. When Cardinals fans who'd made the trip erupted in glee behind the team's third-base dugout, it was in response to the out-of-town scoreboard, which showed "Phillies 3, Braves 3" after a Chase Utley sacrifice fly against 46-save closer Craig Kimbrel at Turner Field.

That game was going to 13 innings.

Carpenter pitched a quick shutout in an 8-0 rout, and the players went into the clubhouse to watch TV along with the rest of us. La Russa had "one eye on the TV screen" as he analyzed lineups and matchups for a potential tiebreaker.

"Visiting teams rarely win extra-inning ballgames," La Russa wrote. "There's so much pressure on a bullpen to keep a team from scoring, especially when you know that you don't get another turn at bat if you give up a run."

Meanwhile, the Yankees had raced out to their own five-run lead in the second, and they tacked on two in the fifth. The last time they blew a seven-run lead after eight innings, the year was 1953 and they were on their way to the 16th of their 27 World Series championships.

Derek Jeter and other key regulars were replaced, the Rays' season apparently over.

"Next time you see a fan of the Yankees, give him a hug. Say 'thank you,'" MLB Network studio host Greg Amsinger said to Red Sox Nation.

Red Sox players were watching that game in the visitors' clubhouse at Camden Yards, their game in a rain delay. Boston had a one-run lead through five innings, the game already official. And that was the turning point on Best Night Ever.

It was like intermission at the opera or a Broadway play. Think you know what to expect? Take a deep breath. Keep watching.

We did. And then we started to scream.

* * *

As rain fell in Baltimore, Showalter had the TV set tuned to Yankees-Rays. He had a feeling that something unique was happening. Playing against subs, Tampa Bay had cut New York's lead to four runs. Longoria went up to bat with two on and two out in the eighth, and with one swing, the first homer of the night for No. 3, it was suddenly a one-run game.

Milwaukee and Texas won, securing home-field advantage.

The crowd in Baltimore saw Yankees-Rays on the stadium's big screen, and what they saw was shocking, Kirk Gibson-like stuff. Dan Johnson, who had spent most of the season in the Minors, came off the bench to whack a 2-2 pitch from Cory Wade off the right-field foul pole to force extra innings at 7-7.

In Atlanta, Hunter Pence put the Phillies ahead; La Russa wrote in his book that his players had "erupted in noise that echoed off the Arch and back to Houston." Moans from Cardinals fans followed cheers when the Braves' Dan Uggla walked with one out, and those moans were then followed by more joyful whoops as Atlanta's season died on a double play.

Cardinals clinched, and they would never slow down.

"It was part of a movie that was so hokey that nobody would believe it," La Russa would say.

Boston-Baltimore resumed, and there were stories of how players in such places as Anaheim were huddling around iPhones to check out the At Bat app, trying to get signal -- an industry frozen.

The Red Sox were 77-0 when leading after eight innings, but with two out in the ninth, Nolan Reimold tied the score off the usually steady Jonathan Papelbon with a ground-rule double, then Robert Andino hit the walk-off line drive to left, and now, suddenly, Red Sox Nation was rooting for ... the Yankees.

Proctor did not help them. Longoria lined his second homer of the game, only clearing the wall because that particular section had been lowered four years earlier.

"Greatest night of baseball ever," Jim Rome tweeted.

"It was the most remarkable night of baseball I've ever seen," Kevin Millar said.

"Everybody who saw [the games] thought they were amazing," Tony Kornheiser said. "Maybe the best night of regular-season baseball ever."

Best Night Ever.

And believe it or not, it could be even better on Wednesday. The AL Central title could be at stake. Longoria could be back in it. Showalter's Orioles could have a very different role. Carpenter and the Cardinals may be there again. And so on.

Here we go again.

"Extra-inning games, long rain delays, a team coming back from a 7-0 deficit, the integrity of the competition, especially with teams like Baltimore and the Yankees battling so hard with nothing to gain but pride," La Russa wrote, "are further evidence of just how great this game is and how memorable the 2011 season was."

Mark Newman is enterprise editor of Read and join other baseball fans on his community blog.