FOX real winner after compelling playoffs

For Major League Baseball, FOX and announcer Joe Buck, score the 2011 World Series and indeed the playoffs as the equivalent of a triple play — the year where in TV terms, almost everything broke their way.

From the regular season’s wild finish — St. Louis’ improbable run, Boston’s historic collapse — through the World Series’ first Game 7 since 2002, the baseball season has possessed a magical quality. It’s as if somebody cooked the ingredients just right to benefit baseball and FOX, after a stretch during which MLB appeared to keep shooting itself in the steroid-enhanced foot.

Credit the Cardinals and Rangers with an extremely entertaining series. And while FOX might have stumbled with some unnecessary flourishes such as in-game interviews and infrared imaging — unless you really ached to know what Adrian Beltre looks like on the inside — the network responded with mostly crisp and efficient coverage, particularly from Buck, who distinguished himself at several key junctures.

Even for a modest fan or somebody with no rooting interest, there was a lot to feast upon, TV-wise, including Albert Pujols’ historic three-homer performance and sundry controversies — a blown umpire’s call here, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa’s bizarre explanation for a botched pitching change there — to stoke interest and give sports radio plenty to yak about between games.

Looking past the obvious, though, baseball enjoyed an almost-spooky array of fortunate bounces, many of them completely beyond its control.

The continuing lockout eradicated the NBA’s preseason, removing one potential distraction competing for attention. Elsewhere, the two primetime NFL games airing opposite the World Series — which deflated ratings in the past, when football has overpowered even playoff baseball — were both colossal stinkers, including the Saints’ 62-7 Sunday-night massacre of the Colts.

Finally, a weather postponement proved unexpectedly convenient, meaning the deciding game aired Friday, opposite virtually no serious competition on the other major networks.

As it stands, Thursday’s crazy extra-inning sixth game drew more than 21 million viewers, by far the highest-rated contest of this series, although that almost surely will be eclipsed when Friday’s results are tallied. Viewership is already up 7 percent over 2009, and after back-to-back five-game World Series, a seven-game set gave FOX a full complement of commercial time to sell, which explains all those last-minute movie ads crammed into the telecast.

Even if it wasn’t a nail-biter, Friday’s finale had its share of wackiness — particularly when Texas gave up runs on a walk and a hit batter in the fifth inning. Both teams scoring early also got the game off to a rousing start.

While Buck turned in a strong series, analyst Tim McCarver occasionally seemed asleep at the switch, although at least both knew enough not to get in the way of all the naturally occurring drama.

In his finest moment, Buck threw a nostalgic shout-out by echoing his father Jack’s 20-year-old call to close Game 6 — saying “We will see you tomorrow night!” as David Freese’s walk-off homer cleared the fence. Often, he appeared to out-analyze McCarver, such as when he quickly observed the Rangers’ outfield was playing too deep to effectively challenge a runner at the plate.

“Nobody, and I mean nobody, could have expected the Cardinals to be in this position,” Buck said with two down in the ninth, niftily summing up how St. Louis had “crashed the postseason party.”

Of course, that’s not to say everything is perfect for baseball, beginning with the duration of these games. Die-hard fans might not mind, but with teams that relied so heavily on their bullpens, many telecasts ran past midnight in the East and close to it in the competing teams’ Central time zone. Not a big deal for adults, perhaps, but that mitigates the likelihood kids will watch until the end — and hurts baseball’s ability to cultivate younger viewers the game desperately needs to attract.

That largely amounts to nitpicking, however, in a year when baseball repeatedly rekindled the imagination. It was enough to make fans almost forgive FOX for all those irritating promos. Almost.

So stay tuned for “The X Factor” and “Terra Nova.” Or more likely, don’t — and to paraphrase Buck, we’ll see you next October.