Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 27, 2020

With Minimal Drama, Playoff Field Is Set

In the end, no doubt to the disappointment of some fans and pundits, chaos did not reign over the final day of the Great Game’s abbreviated regular season. When Sunday dawned, forty-four different scenarios for playoff qualification and bracket position remained alive. While the eight American League clubs that will be playing this coming week were known, the only two with postseason bracket positions locked in were Tampa Bay and Houston. The Rays were assured of the best record in the league and thus the top seed, and the Astros were certain of finishing with the worst record of the three divisional runners-up, and thus headed for the sixth spot in the AL bracket. The standings were even more fluid in the National League, where four teams were still fighting for the final two National League tickets to this year’s expanded playoffs, in addition to the potential for movement within the seedings for those franchises that had already qualified. With a full slate of games, all scheduled to begin at the same time (3:00 p.m. on the East Coast), an afternoon of scoreboard watching was ready to unfold.

Much of the focus was on Busch Stadium in St. Louis, where the Cardinals hosted the Milwaukee Brewers for the fifth time in four days. The two teams had split the first four contests, alternating victories beginning Thursday evening, through a Friday doubleheader, and on into Saturday. That meant that the Cardinals were penciled into fifth position in the NL bracket and the Brewers were holding on to the eighth and final spot. But with neither club yet assured of making it to the playoffs, the key term in that sentence is “penciled in.”

Had Milwaukee won on Sunday, attention would have quickly turned to several other games, with both the Phillies and Giants keeping hopes for a postseason berth alive, and the bracket position for the Reds and Marlins still up in the air. St. Louis, which lost multiple games to a COVID-19 infection and was still short of the prescribed sixty, could have been readying for at least one and possibly two makeup games against the Tigers on Monday. The gridlock of a five-way tie for four National League playoff spots would have been lurking.

Sadly for lovers of total confusion, the Cardinals were the one franchise of the four not yet locked into the postseason that controlled its own destiny. Win on Sunday, and St. Louis was the number five NL seed. Thus, when center fielder Harrison Bader tripled to lead off the home half of the 3rd inning of a scoreless game, anyone hoping for general disarray had to be concerned. A walk, a stolen base, and a two-run single by Kolten Wong followed, and St. Louis was on its way. By the end of the inning the Cardinals led 4-0.

The Brewers teased fans with signs of an immediate comeback in the top of the 4th. Christian Yelich drew a leadoff walk on five pitches, and veteran Ryan Braun followed by looking at four straight balls from Cardinals pitcher Austin Gomber. With two on, nobody out, and first baseman Jedd Gyorko at the plate, Gomber uncorked a wild pitch that moved the runners up. But just when it appeared that the St. Louis starter was coming undone, he settled down and outdueled Gyorko, eventually striking him out to end a ten-pitch at-bat. The Brewers did plate one run on a groundout by Daniel Vogelbach, but Gomber came right back to fan second baseman Keston Hiura, ending the inning.

The eventual 5-2 St. Louis victory ensured the Cardinals of both a spot in the postseason and a winning record for the thirteenth year in a row, albeit one compiled over just fifty-eight games. But in the other dugout Brewers players didn’t have to hang their heads for too long. Even as the Cardinals were celebrating on the field, the game between the Rays and Phillies went final, with Tampa Bay winning a 5-0 shutout, ending hopes for postseason play in Philadelphia. Then less than half an hour later, in San Francisco the Padres’ Trevor Rosenthal fanned the side in the bottom of the 9th, stopping a Giants comeback that had cut a 5-1 San Diego lead through six to 5-4 two innings later. San Francisco’s loss allowed Milwaukee to back into the NL’s final Wild Card slot.

For all the variables and alternate endings possible at the start of play Sunday, by the time the regular season’s final out was recorded the National League standings were unchanged by the day’s results. The only Sunday shuffling came in the American League, where two pairs of teams swapped positions in the bracket. Minnesota began the day seeded second, but the Twins’ loss to the Reds coupled with the Athletics’ win over the Mariners allowed Oakland to move up one position and bump Minnesota down a spot. Similarly, a Cleveland win and a White Sox loss moved the former up into second place in the AL Central and made Chicago a Wild Card team, so the two clubs switched between the AL’s fourth and seventh seeds.

Just how important the seedings are can’t be known until the end of the week, when the Wild Card round is complete. This is a postseason unlike any that has gone before, and while all three games of each first round series will be played in the home park of the higher seed – the three division winners plus the second place club with the best record – the advantage of being the home team in a year without fans in the stands may be limited. Even in normal times home field is not the edge in the Great Game that is so clearly is in some other sports. Last year’s World Series, with all seven games going to the visiting squad, was the ultimate proof of that.

So the teams that are about to travel, from the fifth-seed Yankees and Cardinals down to the second Wild Cards, the Blue Jays and Brewers, have no reason to give up hope. Indeed, lovers of chaos may not have seen much on the regular season’s final day, but there’s still plenty of time for the unexpected to occur. How about a World Series title for Milwaukee, which “won” the NL’s second Wild Card with a decidedly unwinning mark of 29-31? A championship for a team making it into the playoffs with a losing record; what could be more fitting in 2020?

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