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Tuesday, December 27, 2011
Baseball's best moment of the year

By Jim Caple
ESPN.com

Evan Longoria
Evan Longoria capped the Rays' improbable comeback with a game-winning HR in game No. 162.

Baseball's moment of the year was Evan Longoria's walk-off home run that ended the regular season and completed the most exciting day in baseball history. But it was the 2 hours and 10 minutes leading up to it that made the moment worthy of a Brad Pitt movie, a Ken Burns documentary and a Buster Olney book.

Who would have guessed at such a climax four weeks earlier? What with the Yankees, Red Sox, Phillies and Braves holding such substantial leads that the Cardinals and Rays were no closer than 8½ games back when September began, it looked as if baseball's most exciting comeback that month would be the story of the Athletics' rebuilding process in "Moneyball."

But then came a dramatic September that was capped by Longoria and the season's final, unforgettable night. In a 130-minute span -- or one minute shorter than "Moneyball'' -- the Cardinals completed their comeback from what had once been a 10½-game deficit; the Rays completed what had been a comeback from a nine-game deficit to the Red Sox AND a rally from a 7-0 eighth-inning deficit to the Yankees; Boston and Atlanta completed historic collapses; the Phillies significantly hurt their postseason chances and the Rangers and Brewers secured home-field advantage through the LCS.

And because all this happened on a Wednesday rather than a football Sunday, baseball had the attention of every sports fan in America, all of whom seemed to be changing channels between games or tweeting about the latest amazing development.

Why is Maddon pinch hitting Dan Johnson? He's hitting .108 & last big league hit was April!

Johnson just hit game-tying, pinch-hit homer with two out in ninth! Maddon a genius!

Dan Johnson
Dan Johnson had 10 hits in 2011 but none bigger than his game-tying pinch-hit home run against the Yankees on the final day of the regular season.

All the drama came down to that final Longoria at-bat. Picked by some (well, me) to be the MVP before the season, Longoria instead almost immediately got hurt and struggled part of the year. But he had a crucial finish. In mid-September, he went 6-for-15 with two home runs and seven RBIs when the Rays took three of four games from the Red Sox. The next week, he started a game-saving triple play against New York and had a key walk in the same game.

And on that final Wednesday, he hit a three-run homer in the eighth inning to close the gap to 7-6. The next inning, Johnson homered to tie the game and send it into extra innings. And just three minutes after Oriole Robert Andino's two-out, walk-off single beat the Red Sox 4-3 in Baltimore, Longoria came to the plate against New York's Scott Proctor in the bottom of the 12th.

One fastball over the left-field fence later, the Rays were the American League wild card team and heading to the postseason while Boston was on its way to a panic-filled, self-absorbed winter that would change the face of the franchise.

It was an extraordinary night -- and if it doesn't produce a movie, documentary or a book, it at least provides decades of barroom conversation. As my friend Scooter wrote in an email: "I can't ever thank my late father for introducing me to this game over 55 years ago."

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Follow Jim Caple on Twitter: @jimcaple