Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 3, 2010

The Longest Season’s Final Day

At last the longest season comes to its final day. In parks all across the land thirty teams have given their all through 161 games. Now only one remains. In many cities this final game is played for nothing more than pride; the fate of the local nine having long since been decided. But remarkably, even on this, the final afternoon and evening of regular season play, not all is known.

In the American League, the four playoff participants have been identified. But still to be determined is the seeding of the four. Tampa Bay and New York sit tied atop the East. One will be the division champion and open the playoffs at home against Texas; while the other will enter the post-season as the Wild Card and travel to Minnesota. The odds favor Tampa Bay as they own the first tiebreaker, having won the season series between the two 10-8. New York must thus both win and have Tampa Bay lose in order to claim the division crown. Whichever of the two teams prevail will also post the best record in the league, thus assuring itself of home field advantage through the first two rounds of the playoffs.

The AL’s uncertainty is mild compared to that which exists in the senior circuit. With little more than a month to play, the San Diego Padres led the National League West by 6 ½ games. But September has not been kind to the Friars, and they watched the Giants first catch and then pass them. San Diego entered the final weekend 3 games back of San Francisco. Fate aligned the schedule perfectly, with San Diego traveling up the California coast for three final contests in the stadium by the Bay. Needing to win all three, San Diego was victorious Friday and Saturday, and so has crept to within a game.

The Padres are also tied with Atlanta for the NL Wild Card. Of these three teams, only two can advance, and it is possible that a further game or two may be required to determine just which two will move on to the post-season.

Meanwhile the red hot Phillies, the disappointing Royals, and the injury-plagued Red Sox will also have something to say about the outcome. These three teams play Atlanta, Tampa Bay, and New York. Thus each has the opportunity to play spoiler. Through three seasons on the calendar 2,415 contests of the Great Game have played out. But for five teams still it comes down to a final nine innings.

Off all the major American sports, this is the one with the most exclusive access to its post-season tournament. Each year a majority of NBA and NHL teams advance to those leagues’ respective playoffs, as do half of the MLS franchises. Twelve teams or nearly 40% of the league will win spots in the NFL post-season. But at the end of the longest season only 8 MLB teams, just over a quarter of the total, win the right to play on in pursuit of the ultimate prize.

On this final Sunday the Braves and Phillies open the first meaningful contest. Led by retiring manager Bobby Cox, the Atlanta squad knows that if it wins its season will continue; either as the outright winner of the Wild Card if the Padres lose, or at least into a one-game playoff for the Wild Card spot against one of the west coast teams if the Padres prevail.

The Phillies take an early 2-0 lead. But manager Charlie Manuel is aligning his pitching rotation for the playoffs; so despite pitching well starter Cole Hamels is lifted after just two innings. Roy Oswalt is then asked to pitch but a single frame before yielding to a progression of hurlers from the Philadelphia bullpen. This gives the Braves the opening they need, and they score in each of innings three through six, running the score up to 8-2. Atlanta starter Tim Hudson seems on his way to his 17th win, though he yields two more runs before departing after seven innings. In the 8th, Philadelphia puts runners on the corners with two outs. Atlanta manager Cox calls for Billy Wagner, the veteran left-handed closer, who like Cox is retiring at season’s end. But Wagner yields an RBI single followed by a two-run double and suddenly the seemingly certain Braves’ victory is very much in doubt. But from somewhere deep within himself Billy Wagner finds the resolve that allowed him to record more than 400 saves in his long career. He faces four more Phillies, one in the 8th and three in the 9th. All four are retired on strikeouts. In Atlanta there is joy. The Braves will play on.

Meanwhile up in Boston ancient Fenway Park is the scene for the final 2010 meeting between the Yankees and Red Sox. Thanks to a Friday rainout, the two teams are coming off a long Saturday in which they played two games, both of which went into extra innings. To accommodate the Fox network, the first game of the twin bill did not even start until 4 p.m., and it was after 1 a.m. on Sunday before the nightcap concluded. While obviously wanting to win, New York manager Joe Girardi must also be mindful of having his pitching staff ready for the playoffs. He turns to spot starter Dustin Mosely. Mosely pitches adequately, but on this day that is not nearly good enough. He surrenders four runs in five innings of work. A procession of relievers from the back end of the bullpen yield four more in the 6th and 7th frames. That is more than enough for John Lackey, who pitches into the 8th of what will eventually be an 8-4 Red Sox victory.

It has been a tough year for the Boston nine. Every season there are teams whose hopes are laid low by an unusually high count of injuries. Such was the case for the Red Sox in 2010. That they stayed within sight of the Yankees and Rays for as long as they did is a testament to their resolve. But with their own post-season hopes long since gone, they no doubt savor the opportunity to dent the plans of their fiercest rival. It is only the third time ever, and the first since 1944, that the Yankees have failed to finish first after being in that position on Labor Day.

Meanwhile out in Kansas City, the team from Tampa Bay is showing its own level of resolve. Trailing the Royals 2-0 in the 9th, and even with the knowledge from the out-of-town scoreboard at Kaufmann Stadium that they are on the verge of winning the division as Boston is finishing off its victory over New York, the Rays refuse to quit. They rally to tie the score and force extra frames. Finally in the top of the 12th they plate the go-ahead run, and then hold on in the bottom half of the inning. Tampa Bay wins the toughest division in the game on its own terms.

Finally all attention turns to San Francisco, where the Padres now know that they must win. If they do so, they, the Giants and the Braves will all finish with identical records. In that event San Diego and San Francisco would play for the fourth day in a row on Monday, but down in San Diego, to determine the winner of the NL West. Then the loser of that game would play the Braves in Atlanta on Tuesday to determine the winner of the NL Wild Card.

But in the end, there will be neither extra games nor need for unexpected cross-country travel. After winning 6-4 on Friday and 4-2 on Saturday, the San Diego offense goes silent on Sunday. The Padres manage just four hits, though they are not without scoring opportunities thanks to five walks by Giants pitchers and an error by San Francisco pitcher Santiago Casilla. But the one absolute truth of the Great Game is that a team can never win if it doesn’t score; and on this final Sunday San Diego does not score. The Giants do three times. Twice in the 3rd inning on RBI hits by Freddy Sanchez and Aubrey Huff, and once more in the 8th on a home run by rookie Buster Posey. In the 162nd game, it is the team’s 162nd home run. When closer Brian Wilson ends the game with a strikeout, notching his 48th save in the process, 42,822 fans give a roar that can surely be heard in Oakland. For Padres’ fans, this final Sunday is in the end just bitter and bile.

So the longest season comes to a close. For the fans of 22 teams, it is time to find other diversions and to make the long journey through the dark of the dead season until once again the call for pitchers and catchers goes out; and eternal hope renews. But for the Braves, Giants, Phillies and Reds; and for the Rangers, Rays, Twins and Yankees the game goes on. Some come into the post-season on a roll; others gasped and wheezed their way into the playoffs. But does that really matter? Because for these 8 squads and their fans, the ultimate goal is alive. And everything is reset. All that has gone before, all 162 contests are but prelude. The best month now begins.

In the end of course, only one nine will hoist the trophy. Does that mean that the other teams will fail? I think not. This is the hardest trophy to win. It requires perseverance, ability, and no small amount of luck through the longest season to even have a chance. And then it requires resolve and skill and a willingness to chance it all through three short series. Whatever happens in the next month; each of these eight teams is a winner. Because they are playing on. And it’s October!

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