Coco Crisp settled under the final fly ball, and the Oakland Athletics started charging onto the field like a bunch of Little Leaguers chasing an ice cream truck after a big win.
Within seconds, the infield at the Coliseum was a sea of green and gold. These young A’s had done it, sweeping Texas to win a most improbable AL West title on the last day of the regular season.
A few hours later, baseball’s playoff pairings were set. All of that fretting over potential tiebreakers, cross-country trips and a chaotic postseason schedule was for naught.
“Now the real season starts,” New York Yankees star Derek Jeter said Wednesday night.
The playoffs begin Friday with a pair of winner-take-all wild-card matchups. The defending World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals visit Chipper Jones and the Atlanta Braves in the NL, then Baltimore plays at Texas.
Plus, consider this: After so much talk about the new, expanded postseason format that added two teams, the AL came out exactly how it would’ve last year. The Rangers and Orioles finished with the same record, so they’re playing one game to decide it.
The Athletics’ 12-5 win, helped when All-Star center fielder Josh Hamilton dropped a fly, brought them a curious reward: a trip to Detroit to face Triple Crown slugger Miguel Cabrera, reigning AL MVP and Cy Young winner Justin Verlander and the Tigers in Game 1 of the division series.
“They have a very powerful lineup that can certainly score some runs. They also have great starting pitching. We will have our work cut out for us,” Oakland manager Bob Melvin said.
No matter, it was time for celebrating. The A’s took a victory lap around their ballpark, slapping hands with their fans and spraying them with bubbly.
The Yankees later claimed the AL East championship. They began celebrating in the dugout during the seventh inning when the scoreboard showed second-place Baltimore had lost 4-1 to Tampa Bay, thanks to three home runs by Evan Longoria.
Jeter, a five-time World Series champion, and the Yankees put an emphatic end on their finish, routing rival Boston 14-2.
The Yankees hold home-field advantage throughout the AL playoffs, and will open Sunday at either Baltimore or Texas in a best-of-five series. In a one-year arrangement made necessary by the new wild-card format, the division series begin with two games at the lower-seeded team.
On Saturday night, Johnny Cueto starts for Cincinnati against Matt Cain and host San Francisco in Game 1 of the NL division series.
Ryan Zimmerman and the Washington Nationals got sized for hats with postseason patches, then beat Philadelphia 5-1 to earn home-field advantage all the way through November, if necessary.
There was another winner at Nationals Park, too. The Teddy Roosevelt mascot took the in-game Presidents Race for the first time. Ol’ Teddy had lost more than 500 dashes to the 10-foot foam representations of Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.
“I am so glad Teddy won, so we can stop talking about Teddy. People get more excited for a mascot race than a game,” Zimmerman said.
Washington and well-rested 21-game winner Gio Gonzalez will play Sunday at the NL wild-card winner.
Nationals manager Davey Johnson is expected to be all right for the opener. He left the dugout in the seventh inning Wednesday because of numbness in his left leg, the result of pinched nerves in his back.
“I’m OK. Nothing wrong with me,” he said.
Atlanta’s Kris Medlen will throw the first pitch of this year’s playoffs. The Braves have won a record 23 straight games when he’s started. Kyle Lohse starts for St. Louis.
For Jones, it could be his last appearance in the majors. The Braves star is retiring at age 40.
“Now we’ve got to get over this one-game playoff thing to give ourselves a legitimate shot at what we were all shooting for out of spring training,” he said.