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Drama of Game 162 never seen before and likely never will again

Starting at 9:56 p.m. Eastern, the grand old game, said to suffer by comparison from football's siren sisters of gambling and violence, and said to suffer from America's shrinking attention span and capacity to contemplate, rose up and fairly screamed, "Watch this!"

At that minute, the Boston Red Sox and Atlanta Braves clung to twin 3-2 leads and the belief that they would avoid the completion of the greatest September collapses in the history of the sport, even if, in Atlanta's case -- the Braves appeared headed for a tiebreaker game with St. Louis -- it meant a 24-hour stay of execution. Boston seemed home free to October, seeing that Tampa Bay, its competitor for the wild card spot, was getting blown out by the Yankees, 7-0.

But what happened at that moment was the beginning of the end: With the Braves two outs from victory, Chase Utley of Philadelphia tied the game in Atlanta with a sacrifice fly against Craig Kimbrel, the baby-faced rookie closer for the Braves who was pitching with the earnestness of youth, but more obviously with the toll of overuse and stress from a grueling stretch run. Red-cheeked and flustered, he invited pity more than scorn.

Nothing would be the same in the next 129 minutes. Fortunes were reversed. Reputations were made and destroyed. Careers were altered.

It was 129 minutes played on the edge of a sharp knife. It wasn't just win or go home. It was fame or infamy. Anonymity or celebrity. Cursed or blessed. Collapse or comeback. The Last Night of the Year did not bother with the in between. The scale and speed of it was mind-boggling.

There is a phenomenon in weather in which hurricanes spawn tornadoes. More than half of all hurricanes churn up at least one tornado, often in their right-front quadrant, and some create scores of them. Hurricane Beulah in 1967, for instance, spawned 141 tornadoes. This was the baseball equivalent of Beulah, a kind of natural disaster many times over.

The blown save by Kimbrel spawned 129 minutes of mayhem unseen in the annals of the game, especially given the technological ease and variety in which the mayhem could be consumed. The biggest points of destruction were thus:

10:23 p.m.: Evan Longoria hits a three-run homer to bring Tampa Bay to within 7-6 of the Yankees.

10:26: St. Louis completes an 8-0 trouncing of Houston and repairs to clubhouse televisions to watch the Braves.

10:47: Dan Johnson, hitting .108 -- a number (without the decimal) considered sacred in many Eastern religions but an outright travesty in baseball -- hits a game-tying home run for the Rays when they are down to their last strike.

10:58: The Red Sox resume their game in Baltimore after a long rain delay, a delay that now makes sense as the baseball gods setting this game aside for a bit -- like allowing the dough to sit before baking -- so that the Boston and Tampa Bay games could crescendo minutes apart.

11:28: Hunter Pence of Philadelphia, with the ugliest of swings producing the ugliest of hits, squibs a broken-bat single to put the Phillies ahead of the Braves, 4-3 in the 13th inning.

11:40: Freddie Freeman of Atlanta grounds into a double play, ending the game and eliminating the Braves.

11:59: Nolan Reimold of Baltimore, with the Orioles down to their last strike, ties the game with a ground rule double off Boston closer Jonathan Papelbon.

12:02: Robert Andino wins the game for Baltimore with a single. The Red Sox, as it turns out, have three minutes to live.

12:05: Longoria hits a home run off Scott Proctor to win the game for Tampa Bay.

This morning, nobody cares about the time of game issue, payroll disparity, instant replay, the collective bargaining agreement, television ratings or Frank McCourt. This was the best kind of baseball: baseball you never see coming.

There is only one day in baseball that can be more fatefully appealing than Game 162: Game 7 of the World Series. Opening Day is a treat, but it's warm and fuzzy. It is hopes and dreams and cotton candy. Game 162 is a risk-reward equation. It is like watching two people play catch with a raw egg: it's bound to get ugly for somebody. It will not end well for someone.

But this 162? Unimaginable until it happened. Go ahead: Try to find anything in sports quite like those 129 minutes. How about Game 162 of 1982? Don Sutton of Milwaukee beat Jim Palmer of Baltimore to break a tie and get the Brewers in the postseason, an act followed by Joe Morgan hitting a home run for the Giants to eliminate the Dodgers and send the Braves into the postseason. Powerful, but nothing like last night on the Enhanced Fujita Scale.

How about 162 of 2008? The Brewers and Mets were tied in the wild card standings and tied in the eighth inning of their respective games when fortunes swung this quickly: Wes Helms and Dan Uggla hit home runs for Florida and -- just 15 seconds later -- Ryan Braun hit one for Milwaukee. Mets, out; Brewers in. Wild? Sure, but still nothing like what happened last night in the Bermuda Triangle of Baltimore-Atlanta-St. Petersburg, where what disappeared was our former sense of what was possible.

Think about it: Only one team in the history of baseball had coughed up a lead of more than seven games in September. And yet last night it was made official twice in 129 minutes, with both collapses ending in identical 4-3 defeats with blown saves in the ninth inning. The Red Sox and Braves always were tied at the hip -- they each called Boston home through 1952 -- and now they are tied at the throat. They deserve the harshest epithet in sports: they choked.

The collateral damage is enormous. Among the scarred are Carl Crawford, the free agent bust who was bad to the last drop: the sinking, catchable liner by Andino that clanked off his glove. Crawford, the ex-Ray, couldn't hit, stopped running and especially in the last week played a pitiful leftfield.

Manager Terry Francona will face questions, such as how he fell so madly in love over one game with Ryan Lavarnway, a catcher who three years ago was studying philosophy and playing Ivy League baseball at Yale, that he batted Lavarnway fifth in Game 162. Lavarnway kept coming up with men on base and kept making outs, sometimes two at a time. Besides, Francona's players wore the tired, weary looks of losers, even before Andino's hit. The camera shots of his dugout might well have been taken from a funeral parlor, such was the grim lack of confidence present even when holding a lead. Francona elected to play September with the same approach he brought to every other month, and it failed.

There was third-base coach Tim Bogar sending a halting Marco Scutaro to his extinguishment at the plate with one out and the middle of the order coming up. There was David Ortiz getting thrown out unnecessarily at second base. There were the platoons of players left standing on bases, like commuters at train stations unaware of a transit strike.

There was Yankees manager Joe Girardi, who treated Game 162 like a Rubik's Cube, toying and fiddling with it for his own amusement. The guy ran out of pitchers with expanded rosters, which meant leaving poor Proctor out to dry. This was because he was not about to use the greatest closer in history, Mariano Rivera, though Rivera has thrown all of 11 pitches in the previous two days and 28 pitches in the previous week. Think what it meant for Boston -- its season in the hands of Proctor while Rivera remained in bubble wrap. It wasn't Girardi's job to worry about Boston, but the lack of any semblance of game normalcy just seemed downright weird.

There was somebody named Greg Golson in a Yankees uniform getting caught off third base on a groundball with no outs in the 12th.

There was Fredi Gonzalez, the Atlanta manager whose bullpen usage reminded Braves fans of NASCAR drivers who miscalculate pits and run out of gas on the last lap. There were all those Atlanta hitters -- Martin Prado, Brian McCann, the ghost of Jason Heyward, etc. -- who disappeared.

The city of Atlanta will get over this in the time it takes to say, "What time is kickoff?" It is a football town that has a baseball team the way Peoria has an opera house. But in Boston, the bill to pay for this September is enormous. The team and perhaps the front office that comes back next year in Fort Myers, Fla., will be very different. Boston cannot absorb two straight years without the playoffs without radical changes. Hides will be demanded, the way Grady Little's was in 2003.

But here's another way to look at what we saw: The Rays, nine games out in September, are the greatest comeback team in baseball history. No playoff team ever came from that far back that late. And the Cardinals are not far behind them, matching their 1964 forefathers by coming back from an 8 ½ game September sinkhole. The resolve of the Rays and Cards made The Night of 162 possible at all in the first place.

Longoria's walk-off home run instantly is one of the most famous regular season home runs in baseball history, right up there in the company of Hank Aaron's pennant-clinching homer for Milwaukee in 1957 or -- this is not as heretical as you might think -- Bobby Thomson's Shot Heard Round The World in 1951. It lacks only the New York amplification of Thomson's homer. It makes Longoria, already one of the game's great players, a transcendent cultural player.

There is Dan Johnson, whose unknown baseball life suddenly is forever preserved in baseball lore. There is Robert Andino, who forever is an enemy of the state in Red Sox Nation. There is Joe Maddon, the wild-haired bespectacled nutty professor of a manager who just pulled off the greatest September comeback in history on a shoestring budget, baling wire, duct tape and a sense of humor and perspective not even possible anymore in Boston with the expectations on the high-rolling Red Sox.

Some of the details may grow fuzzy over the years, but for those of us who watched all 129 minutes, we will keep the memory of this night like a token from our childhood. Sure, books will be written, stories re-told and unnecessarily exaggerated, names invoked and films made about what happened on the Night of 162. But what lingers is this child-like sense of wonder, that still we can marvel in this jaded world at what we just saw with full-on surprise and awe.