By Christian Blauvelt
Updated September 29, 2011 at 05:30 PM EDT
Credit: J. Meric/Getty Images

The most exciting TV last night came unscripted. But unlike much of the Wednesday reality TV lineup, it didn’t involve histrionic singers or immunity idols. The drama came from a little game called baseball. And what drama!

If you were a Red Sox fan, your season’s sudden end felt apocalyptically anti-climactic. To put it into EW-friendly pop culture terms, the Sox missing the playoffs after entering September with a nine-game Wild Card lead is a bigger disappointment for the Nation than the respective bummer factors of The Phantom Menace, the Matrix sequels, that Roseanne finale, Chinese Democracy, and the oeuvre of Kevin Costner combined. And if you were a Rays fan, last night felt something like this.

Four teams (the St. Louis Cardinals, the Atlanta Braves, the Boston Red Sox, and the Tampa Bay Rays) went into the night with their whole seasons on the line. After 161 games, none of them had yet secured a playoff berth, and the Red Sox and the Braves had both squandered historic leads in the standings with putrid Septembers. It was all set to come down to Game 162. But as of 11:25 p.m. ET, nothing had changed. In the National League, the Cardinals had beaten the Astros, but the Braves remained tied with the Phillies in extra innings. The Red Sox led the last-place Baltimore Orioles, 3-2, going into the bottom of the ninth, while the Tampa Bay Rays had made an astonishing comeback from a 7-0 deficit to the New York Yankees to push their game into extra frames.

Forty minutes later, it was all over. The Braves lost, granting the surging Cardinals the last playoff spot in the National League. The Red Sox completed their unbelievable collapse when ace closer Jonathan Papelbon gave up a walk-off double to those pesky Orioles, whose fans cheered as if they’d just made the postseason rather than finishing with a 69-93 record. Still, the Sox had hope. If the Rays lost to the first-place Yankees, that would at least force a one-game playoff for the Wild Card. But at 12:05 a.m., in the bottom of the 12th, Evan Longoria, easily the most popular man in Florida today, hit a walk-off solo shot, his second homer of the night. Even for a team that’s already experienced huge success in the past few years, last night was tops. I’m not sure the Rays’ World Series appearance in 2008 came close.

There’s no older cliché than to remark on the human drama of sports, but that doesn’t make it any less true. This is a game where the greatest heroes can be an All-Star with Gillette commercials like Evan Longoria or a .108-batting minor-league stand-by (and sometime Japanese-leaguer) like Dan Johnson, who tied the game 7-7 with a two-out, two-strike homer in the bottom of the ninth to keep the Rays alive. Where a team that was counted out because of the preseason loss of superstar left-fielder Carl Crawford to the Sox, clinched a playoff berth after Crawford couldn’t catch the Orioles’ game-winning double. Where a franchise with a $41-million dollar payroll has been able to compete and win against teams with salary totals four times greater. Needless to say, last night just provided a killer featurette for the DVD of Moneyball.

PopWatchers, was there anything more exciting on TV last night than America’s Pastime? And does it amaze you that a relatively slow-paced, 170-year-old game can still be this relentlessly compelling?

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