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Baseball postseason finalized on wild closing day

Washington Nationals fans celebrate after their team won 5-1 in a baseball game against the Philadelphia Phillies in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012.  (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Washington Nationals fans celebrate after their team won 5-1 in a baseball game against the Philadelphia Phillies in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta) Purchase photo reprints »

A dropped fly ball by Josh Hamilton, a home run from Ryan Zimmerman and pitch by pitch, the baseball playoff picture became completely clear on the final day of the regular season.

“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 in the new, expanded format.

On Saturday, the newly crowned AL West champion Oakland Athletics will face Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander and the Tigers in Detroit to open the best-of-five division series.

That night, Johnny Cueto starts for Cincinnati against Matt Cain and host San Francisco in Game 1 of the NL division series.

The low-budget A’s clinched their unlikely title, trumping Texas 12-5 by taking advantage of Hamilton’s error. Trailing by 13 games a week before the All-Star break, the A’s overcame a four-run deficit Wednesday to relegate the Rangers to a wild-card spot.

“It shows how important Game 162 is,” Oakland designated hitter Jonny Gomes said. “I don’t think it took 162 games to check the character of this ballclub.”

The Yankees claimed the AL East a few hours later. 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.

A year after a thrilling, last-day scramble for playoff spots, all 10 slots had already been filled going into the afternoon. Soon enough, the pairings were set, too.

Also a done deal: Cabrera won the majors’ first Triple Crown since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967.

The Yankees hold home-field advantage throughout the AL playoffs, and will open Sunday at either Baltimore or Texas.

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.

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