Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 3, 2021

The Longest Season Is Just Long Enough

One hundred sixty-two.  Every fan of the Great Game knows the significance of the number.  From the early days of spring, through the rising heat of June and the scorching sun of August, until finally arriving at the first weeks of autumn, with the thermometer again dropping and darkness encroaching a little sooner every evening, the longest season meanders its way through one hundred sixty-two games for every franchise, twenty-four hundred thirty contests in all.  To the uninitiated, that must certainly seem like more than enough games to determine which teams advance to MLB’s postseason tournament.  Yet often, as the final days of the regular season tick down to zero, fans and pundits become fixated on the possibility of chaos in the standings resulting from multiple franchises finishing with identical records that require one or more extra games to determine which squads make the playoffs.

The chaos quotient was especially high this year, because while most races and playoff seedings were decided heading into this weekend, the remaining battles, a fight for the National League West division title, with the loser forced to settle for hosting the NL Wild Card Game, and a tussle for both American League Wild Card spots, involved a total of six franchises.  None were facing each other, so when the outcomes remained in doubt right up until game one hundred sixty-two, fully forty percent of the contests played on the regular season’s final day were meaningful for the postseason.  Indeed, to the participants that oft-used term was surely inadequate – “critical” would more closely reflect the stakes on Sunday for the Dodgers, Giants, Mariners, Blue Jays, Yankees, and Red Sox.

Six separate games meant sixty-four possible combinations of outcomes.  Forty-three of those permutations, more than two-thirds of the total, would result in at least one, and possibly as many as three extra games over the next two days to settle the season’s standings, identify the playoff participants, and sort out the seedings.  Adding to the drama was MLB’s practice of having all final day games start at the same time.  At fifteen ballparks across the land, home teams took the field shortly after 3:00 in the East, noon on the West Coast, which made for plenty of scoreboard watching as the afternoon unfolded.

Plenty of fans, especially those with no rooting interest, were pulling for results that would produce maximum chaos.  Three extra games – they are officially counted as regular season contests – would be needed if the Giants and Dodgers tied for the NL West lead, and the AL Wild Card chase ended in either a four-way tie, or a three-way deadlock for the second Wild Card slot.

But only five of the sixty-four possible results from Sunday’s games produced such total disarray, largely because the NL race, involving just two teams, was straightforward.  San Francisco led Los Angeles by a game, so Game 163 only came into play if the Dodgers beat the Brewers and the Giants lost to the Padres.  The opposite result, or both either winning or losing would simply confirm San Francisco’s position atop the division.  L.A. did its part, beating the NL Central Division champs Milwaukee 10-3 behind a sold outing by Walker Buehler, who struck out 11 in 5 innings of work, and a Trea Turner grand slam that broke open a close contest.  Unfortunately for Dodger fans, that only meant that L.A., with its 106-56 record, becomes just the third team with 100 or more wins to enter the postseason as a Wild Card.  That’s because the Giants beat up on San Diego 11-4.  In a battle between this season’s two most surprising teams, the franchise that was a wealth of unexpected delight for its fans all year long overwhelmed baseball’s most underperforming squad.

The four-way race for the two American League Wild Cards was more complex.  Returning to the Bronx after a very successful road trip, the Yankees entered the weekend needing just one win to secure a playoff spot, and seemingly in prime position to host Tuesday’s AL Wild Card tilt.  But as it has done all year, this New York team did its best to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, dropping consecutive contests to Tampa Bay.  That left the Yankees and Red Sox tied at 91-70, with Toronto and Seattle both one game behind.  Maximum chaos required wins by the trailing teams, but the Mariners were down 2-0 to the Angels before their first at-bats, and the afternoon didn’t improve in the Pacific Northwest.  The eventual 7-3 loss added another year to Seattle’s long playoff drought that began in 2001.  It also ensured that the Mariners remain the only current MLB franchise to never play in a World Series.

While the franchise made the most of both appearances, the Blue Jays have only been to the Fall Classic twice, the last time almost three decades ago.  But Toronto kept alive hopes for a return visit this year by teeing off early and often on Baltimore pitching.  At the Rogers Centre it was 3-0 after one, 5-0 after two, and 9-1 at the end of the 3rd inning, so happy home fans as well as Toronto players in the dugout and bullpen were watching the out-of-town scoreboard as much as the action on the field for the rest of the game against the Orioles.  If both the Yankees and Red Sox lost, there would be a three-way tie for the two Wild Cards, requiring two extra games over the next two days.  If at least one of the Blue Jays’ division rivals came up short, Toronto would meet that team in a play-in contest on Monday.

Sunday’s other four critical contests may have lacked drama, but there was plenty in both the Bronx and Washington, where the Red Sox played the Nationals.  In New York, the Yankees’ offense was stifled my Tampa Bay’s Michael Wacha, whose consistent ability to silence Yankee bats belies his overall status as a back of the rotation starter with a negative pitching WAR this season.  Fortunately for New York, Jameson Taillon and a parade of relievers kept the Rays scoreless as well.  That was the situation in the bottom of the 9th, when Rougned Odor led off with a single to center.  Pinch runner Tyler Wade advanced to second on a fly out, then moved to third when Anthony Rizzo singled to right field.  That brought up Aaron Judge, who ran the count to 2-2, then laced one up the middle.  Rays’ pitcher Andrew Kittredge got a glove on it, deflecting the sure single and allowing second baseman Brandon Lowe to corral the ball and throw home.  But not in time to beat the speedy Wade’s headfirst slide, and the Yankees were into the postseason for the 57th time in franchise history.

Half an hour later, the Red Sox, having trailed by as much as 5-1 before chipping away and eventually knotting the score in the 7th, came to bat in the top of the 9th at Nationals Park.  One out after Kyle Schwarber started the inning by reaching on an error, Rafael Devers notched his fourth hit and second home run of the game, putting Boston on top 7-5.  When the Nats went down in order in the bottom of the frame, the Red Sox became the host of Tuesday’s Wild Card matchup against their old rival, and the 2021 regular season was complete.

Those hoping for chaos are doubtless disappointed, for in the long history of the Great Game, tie-breaker contests have produced some of the sport’s singular moments.  The Rockies’ Matt Holliday maybe/possibly/probably never touching home plate while scoring the winning run in the 13th inning of the 2007 NL Wild Card play-in.  Bucky “F’n” Dent, as he is still known in Boston, bringing the Yankees all the way back from a 14-game deficit in the mid-July standings with a homer over Fenway’s Green Monster in 1978.  And, of course, Bobby Thompson and Ralph Branca and the 1951 shot that lives forever.  Chaos can be fun.  But as Sunday once again proved, one hundred sixty-two is usually enough.

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