Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 4, 2021

Three Guys Worth Celebrating, On Franchises That Aren’t

The only thing left is the parade.  The longest season ended half an hour shy of midnight east coast time Tuesday when Atlanta shortstop Dansby Swanson corralled a grounder off the bat of Houston’s Yuli Gurriel.  Swanson’s first glance was to second for a force play, but when he saw teammate Ozzie Albies wasn’t covering the bag, he immediately turned and threw to first.  There Freddie Freeman was waiting, and when Atlanta’s longtime star caught the throw for the final out, he was already grinning.  The 7-0 shutout of the Astros sealed Atlanta’s four games to two World Series win, so on Friday fans will celebrate their baseball team’s first championship since 1995.  In what must be the first ever two-part victory parade, local faithful will be able to choose between joining the party along a lengthy stretch of Peachtree Street in the heart of the city, or eleven miles to the northwest along Cobb Parkway, near the team’s suburban stadium.

Pulling off a bifurcated parade on schedule will require good timing, but then no major league club had more exquisite timing this year than Atlanta.  The team struggled through the season’s first four months, losing several key players including its biggest star to injury, while also separating itself from an outfielder charged with domestic violence.  But with vital contributions from trade deadline pickups, Atlanta stormed down the stretch, going 33-18 from August 6th on, good enough to go from .500 to winning the weak NL East.  Once into the playoffs, Atlanta refused to be typecast by its modest regular season pedigree, besting two National League opponents with far better records through the first 162 games before soundly defeating the Astros, holding the team that led the majors in scoring to a total of only four runs in the four Atlanta victories, which included two shutouts.

Regardless of which franchise claimed the sport’s ultimate prize, for many fans without a personal attachment to either club this was a less than ideal Word Series.  L.A.-based sportswriter Molly Knight, who recently left The Athletic to start her own excellent Substack newsletter, headlined her piece on the pairing “The Chop versus the Cheaters.”  Kevin Blackstone, a frequent ESPN contributor, opined in the Washington Post that as bad as Houston was for abusing the sport while riding its 2017 cheating scheme to a title, Atlanta was worse, not just for its mocking caricature of Indigenous people, but also for abandoning the heavily black downtown neighborhood of Turner Field in favor of the white suburban location of Truist Park.

Yet for all the ample reasons a cheer for either club sticks in one’s throat, there were individuals on both teams with stories meriting the congratulations, or condolences, of fans. 

The broad smile that split Freeman’s face even as Swanson’s throw found his glove was born not just of joy but also relief, equal parts the happiness of someone who is by all accounts one of the nicest people wearing a big league uniform and the release of a franchise’s face finally achieving a long-sought goal, perhaps in his final game with Atlanta.  Freeman was drafted by Atlanta in the second round of the 2007 MLB Amateur Draft and made his big league debut in September of 2010.  By the start of the following season, he was the team’s regular first baseman, and he has locked down that corner of Atlanta’s infield since.  He’s a career .295 hitter with an OPS of .893 who has surpassed 20 home runs in all but two full, 162-game, seasons.

With five All-Star selections and the 2020 National League MVP Award, Freeman has been the most recognizable and popular member of the team through most of his time in Atlanta, certainly since the 2012 retirement of Chipper Jones and until the recent arrival of Ronald Acuna Jr.  That popularity extends to opponents, for he regularly greets those who arrive safely at his station warmly, congratulating them on getting a hit, and chatting them up while they’re in his vicinity.  Freeman says he goes out of his way to be positive both because he remembers how nervous he was when he started, and because, as he told an interviewer at the start of the postseason, “I know how hard it is to get a base hit in a major league baseball game.”  Freeman also knows the weight of being the face of the franchise.  In five previous seasons he led Atlanta to the playoffs, four times as a division winner, only to exit short of the World Series.  This season was his last before entering free agency, and while Freeman says he’d like to stay in Atlanta, how Atlanta’s front office will value its 32-year-old star is unknown.  His campaign mirrored the team’s, as Freeman struggled early, carrying a sub-.200 batting average through the season’s first six weeks.  But by the time he hit for the cycle for the second time in his career in mid-August, Atlanta was rolling and so was Freeman, his average up to .301.  Tuesday night, in his potential final at-bat for Atlanta, Freeman drilled a no-doubt homer to center field for the final run of this year’s World Series. 

While Freeman, final out in his glove, started the celebration of Atlanta’s players on the field, third base coach Ron Washington was equally exuberant in Minute Maid Park’s visitors’ dugout.  Washington has spent half a century in professional baseball, but it’s likely that the last ten of those years have seemed the longest.  That’s because as manager of the Texas Rangers from 2007 through 2014, he guided his team to back-to-back World Series in 2010 and 2011.  Both trips ended in defeat, but the second was especially painful.  Leading three games to two and 7-5 in the bottom of the 9th of Game 6, Texas was one strike away from a title, with two St. Louis runners on base and the Cardinals’ David Freese behind in the count against the Rangers’ Neftali Feliz.   But Freese hit the next pitch for a double that tied the score.  The Rangers again went up by two in the 10th, and St. Louis was again down to its final strike in the bottom of the frame.  But once again, that proved one strike too many for Texas.  The Cardinals tied the score again, won the game in the 11th, and went on to win Game 7.

Through that heartbreak and subsequent battles with personal demons, Washington has remained remarkably upbeat.  He’s viewed as a genius at coaching infield defense and has been highly regarded by his players wherever he’s been.  And now, after a decade of waiting, he finally has the title that was twice just one good pitch from being in his grasp.

Of course, not everyone gets to celebrate when the World Series ends.  While the party was just getting started for Freeman and Washington, Astros manager Dusty Baker quietly collected his things in the Houston dugout.  Like Washington, Baker has spent a lifetime in the Great Game, as a two-time All-Star, Silver Slugger and Gold Glove winning player, and as a highly respected manager of five different clubs.  But while he played for the 1981 champion Dodgers, no Baker-managed team has ever won a title, even though every one of his clubs has made the postseason and despite his 12th place rank on the career wins list and three Manager of the Year Awards.  Hired by Houston in 2020 to clean up the stench of the franchise’s cheating scandal, Baker managed the Astros to the ALCS in that shortened season, and this year to Game 6 of the Series.  But the ultimate prize remains elusive.

So yes, as hard as it may have been for fans without a rooting interest to rally behind either of the franchises in this year’s Series, there were plenty of compelling individual stories.  In addition, if one subscribes to the view that there is nothing truly new under the sun, Atlanta’s triumph is a welcome omen for the faithful of at least one franchise among the twenty-nine that are not about to stage a parade.  For if history will only be so kind as to repeat itself, the near future is especially bright for the Yankees.  After all, the last time Atlanta won a championship, the team from the Bronx took four of the next five.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 31, 2021

The Naysayers And The Imaginary No-Hitter

As this is written, the first pitch of World Series Game 5 is still two hours away.  The longest season may end tonight, in which case this year in the Great Game will be remembered for the resiliency and perfect timing of Atlanta’s franchise, which will have overcome considerable adversity – most notably a season-ending injury to its franchise player – to sneak into the playoffs and then roll to a title despite posting the fewest regular season victories of any champion since the 2006 Cardinals turned the trick after winning just 83 times.  That will remain the irresistible story even if a celebration for Atlanta is delayed until Tuesday or Wednesday night, especially when the original postseason bracket included three clubs boasting triple-digit regular season victories.  But if, after a pair of dramatic losses at Truist Field, the Astros climb off the mat and rally to win the Series in seven games, the focus will shift to a debate about whether a Houston title presumably accomplished on the up-and-up expunges the stain on the franchise and the sport from the cheating scheme the Astros employed in 2017.

But since we don’t yet know which narrative will be the lasting one, there’s still time to dwell on what is apparently, at least for some pundits and fans, a far more important topic than winning the World Series.  That, of course, is the existential threat to the future of baseball that they saw in Game 3.  In that contest Atlanta manager Brian Snitker opted to go to his deep and talented corps of relief pitchers after starter Ian Anderson had completed five innings of work, thus robbing Anderson of his chance at immortality.  For when Snitker wielded his hook, Atlanta’s 23-year-old sophomore right-hander had not surrendered a hit, meaning he was a mere twelve outs away from tossing just the second no-hitter in World Series history, and the first since Don Larsen’s 1956 perfect game.

Never mind that Anderson was barely more than halfway to such an accomplishment, or that there is nothing “mere” about working one’s way through a powerful lineup of hitters such as Houston’s for the third and fourth time to record four more innings worth of outs.  Ignore too that Anderson needed 76 pitches to make it through five frames, meaning he was on track to require 135 or more to complete nine innings, or that such a volume of throws is something one rarely saw even in the supposedly good old days.  Or for that matter, that at 160 innings, Anderson’s season workload was already more than three times what he managed in 2020.  It’s also best not to dwell on the fact that Anderson had struggled with his control throughout the game, missing the strike zone 37 times, or nearly as often as the 39 throws that found it.  He had held Houston hitless but had walked three Astros and plunked another.  Finally, one must conveniently forget that at the time Atlanta was clinging to just a 1-0 lead.

None of those realities stopped Ken Rosenthal from opining for The Athletic that Game 3 was but “the latest example of a sport that has lost its way, valuing efficiency over entertainment.”  Rosenthal’s piece was one of the more dramatic denunciations of Snitker’s decision to relieve Anderson, but it had plenty of company.  On websites and in social media, other sportswriters and plenty of fans lamented the ruthless shunting aside of history in the making in favor of, what exactly?  For what Rosenthal called “efficiency” and lots of others decried as an overreliance on analytics, can also be described as trying to win.  Which is the point.  Yes, we fans, especially those of us without a specific rooting interest, hope these games are entertaining.  But Atlanta and the Astros aren’t Broadway troupes, and each team’s goal in the World Series is to be the first to win four games.

The critics had no choice but to concede as much, with Rosenthal acknowledging the validity of Snitker’s postgame statement that given the numbers cited above, Anderson “wasn’t going to throw a nine-inning no-hitter.”  Still, to the veteran scribe the heightened reliance of relief pitching during the postseason, with starters rarely working longer than Anderson did Friday evening, is a trend that “stinks.”  To that end, The Athletic may have just been too hasty in posting Rosenthal’s thoughts, since for both Games 4 and 5 Atlanta opted for a starter in name only.  Back-to-back bullpen games in the World Series is a first.  Saturday night Dylan Lee faced just four batters, but even if he had been effective, he would not have been asked to go more than an inning or two. 

There is no question managers now keep starting pitchers on extremely short leashes in postseason games, and the aversion to allowing a hurler to face an opposing lineup for a third time is becoming one of the sport’s unwritten rules, even during the regular season.  Some suggestions for restoring greater reliance on starting pitching have considerable merit.  These include limiting the number of pitchers a team can carry.  That is likely to be resisted by the Players Association, since it might cost some relievers their jobs, but it could be a tradeoff in the upcoming CBA negotiations for the new jobs created by extending the designated hitter rule to the National League.  If there is a universal DH, a rule stating a team loses the position once its starting pitcher leaves the game would both increase the importance of the starter and add an element of strategy in later innings, when relievers might be due to bat in key situations.  Of course, the overriding reason for finding a way for starters to consistently work deeper into games is to speed up play.

But all of that, if indeed any of it ever happens, is for the future.  This World Series will be won or lost under current rules, and both Brian Snitker and Dusty Baker will use data and analytics as it now exists to inform their decisions.  To do otherwise would be managerial malpractice.  But they will also apply their own instincts, for failing to utilize an understanding of the Great Game earned through more than ninety combined years playing and coaching at its professional level would be equally egregious.  The cries of those who see in baseball’s ultimate showcase all they deem wrong about the sport have taken on a “get off my lawn” quality.  As one fan’s social media post said of the complainers, “if they hate the game so much, why do they watch it?”  Maybe it’s because Games 3 and 4 were pretty darn entertaining.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 28, 2021

Too Little Drama, Too Much Time

We are only two games deep in a World Series that now must go at least five, so there is still time for this year’s Fall Classic to become, well, classic, but that is surely not the word that most fans would use to describe the first eighteen innings of play.  The first pitch of Tuesday’s Game 1 was at 7:11 p.m. Houston time, and by 7:12 the Astros were behind.  Atlanta then just kept pouring it on against Framber Valdez, the Houston left-hander who was so effective against the Red Sox in the pivotal Game 5 of the ALCS.  Of course, Valdez had been decidedly less impressive in his two previous postseason outings, putting up an unsightly 7.71 ERA over a combined seven innings of work against the White Sox in the ALDS and Boston five days prior to his lights-out performance, so perhaps his implosion should not have been a total surprise. 

Then, one night after enduring the 6-2 thrashing, the Astros returned the favor, quickly tallying a run against Max Fried in the opening frame, and eventually touching the Atlanta left-hander for five more scores on the way to a 7-2 victory.  Fried dominated for Atlanta down the stretch, as the team rallied from a mere .500 record in the first week of August to overtake the Phillies and collapsing Mets and claim the NL East.  But like Valdez, he’s now had a couple of shaky playoff starts, though in fairness he was victimized in this one by several soft hits and poor defensive play, including his own wild pitch, while yielding four runs in the pivotal 2nd inning.

To make matters worse, all this poor play proceeded at a ponderous pace.  The wish, recently made in this space, for games ending before midnight East Coast time went unfulfilled when Game 1 dragged on for more than four hours.  Game 2 managed to wrap up before the witching hour but could be called speedy only in comparison to the previous night’s affair.  At three hours and eleven minutes, it was longer than the average game this season, a number that was already a record MLB surely didn’t need.  But then one can hardly expect decent game times when, in the wisdom of managers Dusty Baker and Brian Snitker, 21 pitchers are needed to record 105 outs.   

Yet the Great Game remains unpredictable, because each contest is made up of countless individual moments, thousands of decisions by those on the field and in the dugout, each of which can nudge the outcome toward one of just two possibilities.  Most important, the decisive push might not be from a choice made at center stage.   One player on a ten-inch hill decides what kind of pitch to throw to a batter sixty feet, six inches away, who in turn must choose in an instant whether to swing at the offering.  But while thousands focus on that, a distant outfielder responds to a signal from the dugout by moving forward two steps as the pitcher begins his windup.  It is that small adjustment to his position that allows him to make a diving catch of the short fly ball that follows.  Or it ensures that the long drive over his head will just barely elude his outstretched glove before bouncing all the way to the wall.

Which is to say, the tone of this year’s World Series can change in an instant.  The Great Game did not exist when Shakespeare had Antonio proclaim, “what is past is prologue” in Act 2 of “The Tempest.”  If it had, the plot of the Bard’s final comedy would have been totally different.  Taut and tight games, well played and well coached, could await fans who tune in when play resumes Friday evening at Truist Park in suburban Atlanta.    

Perhaps, for both the Astros and Atlanta are talented teams.  If neither would have been its league’s representative in that long-ago time when achieving the regular season’s best record meant moving directly to the World Series, they are the two teams that have played the best in October.  The Giants and Rays, putative contestants in that theoretical Series, are long gone.  So too L.A. with its absurdly rich payroll, St. Louis with its dramatic late season winning streak, New York with its pedigree, and all the rest.  Some were felled by injury and exhaustion, others by untimely poor play.  Some will blame the sport’s randomness, which is always magnified in the short series that comprise the playoffs.  Others will admit, if only to themselves, that when ten of thirty franchises get to participate in the tournament, they were one of several that really never had much of a chance.

Or perhaps fans will see three, or four, or five more games that look dispiritingly like the first two.  Randomness is unpredictable, so a satisfying result is not guaranteed.  Though in the end one team’s faithful would still get to have a parade, the Great Game will have missed an opportunity should that be how this Fall Classic plays out.  That’s especially true given the television ratings, which while still below older peaks, bumped up markedly from last year’s neutral ground Series following a truncated campaign. 

So, despite the first two games, root for a good World Series.  Root for Dusty, or root for Freddie, still the two best stories.  Or root for Ian Anderson to throw a great game Friday because you grew up listening to Jethro Tull, or for Jose Altuve to homer twice off Anderson, because you’ve always wanted to cheat and get away with it.  And, of course, root for games that end before midnight.  The Great Game really, really needs more of those.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 24, 2021

Then There Were Two

The Giants, Dodgers and Rays, this year’s 100-win teams, are all gone.  Regular season accomplishments – each set or tied a franchise mark for most wins – proved no harbinger of postseason glory.  The Wild Card entrants into MLB’s playoff tournament are done as well.  The only sure prize for being one of the two best regular season also-rans is nine innings of postseason play, and the Cardinals and Yankees didn’t advance beyond that.  Los Angeles, which had the bad luck of having to travel the long Wild Card path to the World Series despite 106 victories, and Boston, a decisive winner over New York in the AL Wild Card Game, both made it to the League Championship round.  But first in Houston, then in Atlanta, the 2021 campaigns of those two clubs ended.  So too for the seasons of the White Sox and Brewers, Central Division champions in their respective league but vanquished in the Division Series round, which seems more than just barely two weeks ago.

Now only two remain, and on Tuesday evening the climax of the longest season gets underway.  World Series Game 1, at Minute Maid Park in Houston, between the Astros and Atlanta.  By many measures, it is a matchup of contrasts.  For Houston, this will be the third World Series appearance in five years.  The Astros were victorious in 2017 against the Dodgers but fell to the Nationals in 2019.  Even in the two years the team did not make the World Series, the Astros played their way as far as the ALCS.  The last team with five straight trips to its LCS was Atlanta from 1995-1999.  No AL franchise has accomplished the feat since the mid-70’s glory days of the Oakland A’s.  Not surprisingly, Houston won its division in each full, 162-game season during this span, averaging more than 100 wins while doing so.  This year’s 95-67 mark is actually the team’s worst record of the four full seasons.  Still, it was the second highest win total in the American League behind only Tampa Bay, and more than enough to hold off wildly overperforming Seattle, which somehow tallied 90 victories despite having the solidly negative run differential one would expect from a sub-.500 club.

All that recent success makes Houston one of MLB’s elite franchises, a team that from the February day when pitchers and catchers report is tagged as a title contender.  Atlanta is, at best, in the next tier of franchises.  This year marks the fourth straight season the club has claimed the NL East crown, but the consensus across the Great Game is that Atlanta’s division is weak.  Indeed, the 88 wins that were sufficient to finish 6 ½ games ahead of the Phillies were the fewest victories of any division champion, and less than any of the four Wild Card teams, a polite way of pointing out that Atlanta had the poorest record of the ten clubs that won the right to play on into October. 

The conventional wisdom about Atlanta is fortified by its playoff record.  Until last year’s strange, truncated campaign, the team had not made it past its first playoff series since 2001, tallying eight Division Series losses and one Wild Card Game defeat.  And when the club made it to the NLCS in 2020, it promptly coughed up a three-games-to-one lead over Los Angeles, and slunk home to Georgia.  One must go all the way back to 1999, the final year of that remarkable run of five straight NLCS appearances – and eight in nine years if one looks back a bit farther – to find a World Series in which Atlanta represented the National League.

Those contrasts, both current and historical, combined no doubt with the 22-1 by which the Astros outscored the Red Sox over the final 26 innings of the ALCS, have made Houston the heavy favorite for this year’s Series, according to the oddsmakers.  But for many fans, excepting of course the understandably elated faithful of the two franchises, the question is not which team is going to win, but why should we care?  As this year’s World Series commences, there is considerable antipathy toward both clubs.

For Atlanta, the ill will has nothing to do with the players, who like everyone who dons a major league uniform are committed to try their hardest.  But there’s no escaping that Atlanta’s uniform bears a name and symbol that caricatures a race.  The casual racism with which the Atlanta franchise is comfortable is further enflamed by the crude chant which the team promoted for years, and now quite willingly tolerates.

Then there is Houston.  Ah, the Astros.  Success at the highest level of any sport demands a huge amount of confidence and self-belief, so it will always be a mystery why a group of extremely talented athletes so doubted themselves that they needed to cheat, as the Astros did on their way to that tainted 2017 title.  But the greater damage was done by MLB’s failure to punish even a single active player once Houston’s sign-stealing scheme was uncovered, and by the decidedly limited degree of remorse expressed by the players who avoided any sanction beyond the lasting enmity of millions of fans.

There will be no joy in this quarter when thousands of Atlanta fans engage in racial parody, or when thousands of Houston fans cheer cheaters who barely even acknowledged their sins.  But in sports, as in life, every moment involves multiple storylines, and this World Series has a couple for which one can cheer.

First, there is Dusty Baker.  Brought out of a reluctant retirement to manage the Astros after the sign-stealing scandal, Baker has led five franchises over almost three decades as a field general.  He ranks twelfth on the all-time wins list with 1,987, and when Houston claimed the AL West crown, he became the first manager to guide five different teams to division titles.  He’s now one of only nine men to manage teams to pennants in both leagues.  But for all his success, and despite his candor and humor in the interview room, he’s never been the manager of a World Series winner. 

In the other dugout, there is Freddie Freeman.  One of the most likable players in the majors, Freeman has been a mainstay in Atlanta since debuting with the club in 2010.  He’s a five-time All-Star who was the league MVP in 2020, and has a Gold Glove Award on his resume for his play at first base.  Freeman’s famous for chatting up and boosting up opposing players who arrive at his defensive spot, and is also selfless, ceding his role as the face of the franchise to Ronald Acuna Jr. when the budding superstar arrived in 2018.  Now Freeman, who is about to become a free agent, is set to play in his first World Series, his team’s first in more than two decades.   

Reflecting the society in which it is played, the Great Game has always included our worst elements.  But for the same reason, it has also always included our best.  So, root for Dusty, or root for Freddie.  Root for a good World Series, and for games that end before midnight.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 22, 2021

An Autumn Tease, Or History In The Making?

“We’re number two!”  Okay, there have been no reports of a mob of excited students at the University of Cincinnati exulting with a chorus of that admittedly odd proclamation, but it is certainly noteworthy that in this week’s Associated Press college football poll, the Bearcats claimed the team’s highest ranking ever, behind unanimous number one Georgia and ahead of Oklahoma.  Cincinnati switched places with the Sooners in the AFCA Coaches Poll, but in both rankings the voters placed the American Athletic Conference team among the top four programs in the country.  The significance of that lofty position, as every college football fan knows, is that the season ending playoff to determine a national champion is, at least for now, limited to four teams, none of which, other than traditionally independent Notre Dame, has ever been from a conference outside the Power 5 of the SEC, Big 10, ACC, Pac-12 and Big 12.

Not only have the second-tier conferences in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision, collectively known as the Group of Five, never been represented in the season-ending tournament, no member school has ever come particularly close to crashing the College Football Playoff party.  In 2014, the CFP’s first year, the final rankings by the selection committee had Boise State 20th, and Group of Five teams haven’t fared much better since, with only two placing in the top-10 in the selection committee’s season-ending assessment.  The University of Central Florida in 2018 and Cincinnati last year both wound up 8th, which is impressive to be sure, but not really within shouting distance of a playoff spot.

This season’s first CFP rankings won’t come out until another two weekends of games have been played, and the listing by the thirteen-member selection committee, which currently includes eleven members with ties to Power 5 schools, is entirely separate from the two major polls.  Still, the Bearcats’ spot in what amounts to a playoff position in the traditional rankings has caused rampant speculation that this could finally be the year for a Group of Five breakthrough.

If so, it will be just one more unlikely turn in a very strange collegiate season.  Each of the four teams that participated in the last CFP, Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson, and Notre Dame, has lost at least once, with the Tigers already tasting defeat twice.  Clemson fell to Georgia in its opening game, then was upset in overtime by North Carolina State three weeks later, ending any chance of extending coach Dabo Swinney’s record of six straight CFP appearances.  Alabama, ranked number one at the time, was stunned 41-38 by unranked Texas A&M the weekend before last, on a 28-yard game-winning field goal as time expired.  And Ohio State has poured it on against weak opponents the last four weeks, trying to erase the memory of a 35-28 loss to Oregon in mid-September.

Then there is Notre Dame.  The Fighting Irish often seem to be highly ranked on the strength of nostalgia as much as performance.  That was the case this year when the preseason polls put Notre Dame in the top-10.  That ranking quickly tumbled when the Irish began the campaign needing overtime to beat Florida State, then barely held off Toledo.  A couple of more impressive wins followed, but in a game that could wind up defining the season for both schools, on the first Saturday in October visiting Cincinnati raced out to a 17-0 halftime lead and coasted to a 24-13 victory at South Bend.

Other highly ranked teams have stumbled as well, including Iowa, Oregon, and Penn State.  Given the bias among both those with votes in the polls and especially members of the CFP selection committee, every upset to date was necessary to give the Bearcats any shot at playing in either the Cotton Bowl or Orange Bowl on New Year’s Eve, this season’s two CFP semifinal games.  For despite Cincinnati’s current poll standing, there’s plenty of reason to think that when it’s revealed early next month, the initial CFP ranking won’t place the school in the top four.

The committee has always made clear that it places great weight on strength of schedule, meaning the key question for contenders may not be did a team win, but what opponent did it beat?  It’s a metric that can be measured in myriad ways, as evidenced by the number of different computer programs that do so.  It’s also one that drags down the ranking of top Group of Five teams, which must play much of each year’s schedule against relatively weak conference foes.  That’s the position in which Cincinnati now finds itself.  Having completed the non-conference portion of its schedule, the Bearcats will be heavy favorites to go 12-0, and an upset loss in any AAC conference game will end the team’s hopes for a spot in the playoffs.  But even assuming it rolls up big victories over the likes of Tulane and South Florida, Cincinnati may see its strength of schedule ranking slip as the rest of the season unfolds.  And by this metric the Bearcats have no room to give.  Despite the team’s number two AP Poll position, two major rankings based on computerized strength of schedule models put Cincinnati 5th (Jeff Sagarin) and 9th (Kenneth Massey).   

The metric is not meaningless, and those who scoff at the idea that any Group of Five team could be competitive in the CFP might be correct, though we’ll never know for sure until the day finally comes when one takes the field in a semifinal.  Whether that’s this year depends not just on what Cincinnati does over its final games, but also on how Notre Dame fares.  The Bearcats’ marquee win will gain luster if the Irish also win out but will diminish each time Notre Dame loses or even struggles against an inferior opponent.  Should that happen, a one-loss Alabama or Ohio State, or a flawed ACC champion, potentially Pittsburgh, or some conference runner-up, will very likely find more favor among selection committee members predisposed to favor the Power 5.  For all the midseason speculation, the deck still seems stacked against the Bearcats.

Perhaps they already know that at Nippert Stadium.  Maybe head coach Luke Fickell and athletic director John Cunningham already concluded that the only way to beat the big boys is to join them.  After all, as part of the ongoing reshuffling among college conferences, the Bearcats have announced plans to decamp from the AAC in favor of the Big 12 as soon as 2023.  But before Cincinnati renders the issue moot by joining the Power 5, maybe this year’s team will make some long overdue history.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 17, 2021

Amid Birdies And Eagles, History And Hope

When the CJ Cup was added to the PGA Tour’s schedule in 2017, the new event stood out for several reasons.  Primary sponsor CJ Group, a massive Seoul-based conglomerate with interests in a wide range of industries, guaranteed a purse closer to that of one of the majors or WGC events than of a typical weekly Tour stop.  The chance for a rich payday coupled with a limited field made the long trip to South Plus, as the Tour’s only stop in Korea, the tournament’s location at the Nine Bridges Golf Club offered fans watching on television a look at a different and entertaining venue.  In the event’s first three iterations, Justin Thomas won twice, bookending a victory by Brooks Koepka, giving the CJ Cup the gloss of familiar names as its champions.

But what no one in the tournament’s field knew when Thomas won by two shots in mid-October 2019, was that like every other major sports league the PGA Tour would come to an abrupt halt five months later.  The pandemic that upended professional golf’s familiar rhythms in March of last year is still forcing the Tour to adjust its schedule because of COVID-19 travel restrictions.  Unlike some other events, the CJ Cup has at least been played, but both last fall and this, its home has been very far away from the Korean peninsula.  Relocated to Las Vegas, the tournament was staged at Shadow Creek last year before moving this season to the Summit Club, a Tom Fazio design that serves as the centerpiece of an exclusive residential enclave in the foothills of the Spring Mountains overlooking the Vegas strip.   

The eighteen holes winding through the Nevada desert may be a tough challenge for the well-heeled residents whose homes have views of the course, but they were sitting ducks for the Tour players.  After he vaulted up the leader board with a 10-under par 62 in Saturday’s third round, Rory McIlroy observed that every single hole was a potential birdie opportunity.  He wasn’t simply bragging about that day’s performance.  McIlroy’s 62 was one of five during the tournament, and they were all just second-best to a pair of 61s – by Robert Streb on Thursday to claim the first-round lead, and by Emiliano Grillo in the final round.

With the Summit Club’s layout yielding lots of low scores, the list of potential contenders extended past the first page of the leader board as Sunday’s final round got underway.  Fresh off his own Saturday stroll around the premises that included eight birdies and a closing eagle, McIlroy surely knew that when he teed off as part of the final threesome.  He no doubt also knew that as much as he is a fan favorite, many were pulling for one of his playing partners.  It has been more than two and a half years since Rickie Fowler’s last PGA Tour victory at the 2019 Waste Management Phoenix Open.  Finishes in the top five at all four majors in 2014 and a victory at the 2015 Players Championship propelled Fowler to fourth in the world rankings, and his legion of fans believed that many more victories, including major wins, would naturally follow.   

But for more than five years now Fowler’s career has been stalled, and he arrived in Las Vegas having fallen to 128th in the world rankings.  He remains one of the Tour’s most popular players, though the fact that his commercial appeal has always outstripped his results on the course continues to rankle some.  But that appeal, especially to young fans – a cohort the Tour desperately wants to attract – remains strong, so it’s likely that every sign of a Fowler comeback is greeted warmly not just by those behind the ropes but also by Tour officials and other players.

There were plenty of those signs this week.  Fowler posted three straight rounds in the sixties, and his 66-66-63 gave him the 54-hole lead in a tournament for the first time since that win in Phoenix.  He was two clear of McIlroy and three ahead of Abraham Ancer, the third member of Sunday’s final group.  But the CJ Cup was 72 holes, and when Fowler offset three front nine birdies with a sloppy double-bogey on the par-5 6th hole, he made the turn just 1-under on the day and tied with McIlroy.

Both needed to look beyond their own grouping however, as Collin Morikawa was proving the bit about a deep leader board by going out in just 29 strokes.  In the end though, the two-time major champion’s final round 62 ended up being just one more great score at the CJ Cup. 

That’s because McIlroy seized control of the tournament on the back nine with aggressive play on two holes.  At the drivable par-4 12th, he put his tee shot on the front right edge of the green, then swung a sharply breaking eagle try up to five feet and converted the birdie opportunity.  Two holes later, a couple mighty swings at the par-5 14th left him two yards short of the green, thirty-five feet from the front hole location.  McIlroy pulled out his putter, a club choice that is unusual for pros, but commonplace at clubs and munis where amateurs regularly choose to putt from off the green, staying within their comfort zone.  The effort proved extremely comfortable for McIlroy, who watched his putt drop in the hole for an eagle that all but ended Sunday’s drama.

McIlroy’s win is his 20th on the PGA Tour, making him just the 39th player to reach that milestone.  More impressive is the company he’s now in for achieving it before his 33rd birthday.  That list includes just six names other than McIlroy’s – Arnold Palmer, Billy Casper, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Tiger Woods, and Phil Mickelson.  It’s easy to imagine Rory winning many, many more tournaments, including majors.  Doing the same for Rickie Fowler requires a more creative imagination.  But at least after this week, Rickie’s fans can hope.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 15, 2021

The NFL Must Step Up Before It Can Move On

It’s a safe bet that Roger Goodell and the thirty-two NFL team owners who employ him are fervently hoping that with Jon Gruden gone, attention will revert to the league’s on-field product.  With Week 6 of the NFL’s schedule on tap, many fans across the country will surely grant that wish.  After the defending champion Buccaneers open the week’s action in Philadelphia, two teams with exciting young quarterbacks not named Mahomes headline Sunday’s play when the Chargers and Ravens battle for AFC supremacy.  Arizona, the last squad with a chance to match the 1972 Dolphins’ perfect season, puts its 5-0 record on the line against upset-minded Cleveland, and there’s even an old-time rivalry matchup with the Packers visiting the Bears.  In short, there will be plenty of reasons for football fans to focus on the scores and how their fantasy rosters are faring.

Besides, it’s not just the NFL commissioner and the billionaires who pay him to keep the value of their franchises climbing who would like to change the subject from Gruden’s penchant for sending emails in which he resorted to racist, homophobic and misogynistic tropes to characterize anyone with whom he disagreed.  Countless fans – literally, too many to be counted – have uttered or written the same words, making any time spent discussing the topic inherently uncomfortable.  Especially because many of them would be quick to parrot Gruden’s responses when the Wall Street Journal first reported last Friday on a 2011 email he sent to Bruce Allen, who was president of Daniel Snyder’s Washington franchise at the time, and his statement on Monday when he resigned as head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders.

The Journal’s story detailed how Gruden, then an analyst for ESPN, used a racial slur to disparage Players Association head DeMaurice Smith.  In response Gruden issued the kind of not-quite-contrite apology that is sadly standard in such cases, complete with the hoary bromide that he “didn’t have a racial (sic) bone in my body.”  Within days, after the New York Times revealed that over a period of years there had been many more emails in which Gruden proved to be a serial and casual dispenser of bile, characterizing a lengthy list of individuals with a variety of homophobic and sexist terms, he concluded his brief resignation statement with the empty assurance that “I never meant to hurt anyone.”

The easy response is to mock such words, to assert that anyone uttering them – this case just happens to involve a somewhat famous and wealthy sports figure – is a boldfaced liar.  To be clear, in many, many such cases that instant reaction is the correct one.  But in a discussion that admittedly does not lend itself to nuance, there is another, more nuanced perspective, which allows for the possibility that someone mouthing those cliches believes them to be true.  The advantages of white male privilege are readily apparent to those to whom they do not accrue.  But they can be hardest to see by the very individuals who possess and wield them so freely as to not even recognize they are doing so.  Gruden quite clearly meant to attack and disparage his targets, yet he may not have believed he was hurting them by dint of the simple assumption that his words would remain private.  Similarly, he may not consider the slur against Smith to be racist because he can’t relate to the pain caused by its use.

None of which mitigates his actions to even the slightest degree, for the damage he did is not based on intent.  Gruden deserved to lose his job.  Good riddance.  But the struggle didn’t end when Jon Gruden walked out of Allegiant Stadium for the last time.  Those long engaged in the unforgiving task of slowly bending the long arc of history toward justice understand that.  Far more difficult than publicly shaming one NFL coach is ferreting out those still in the league who supported or enabled him.  After all, Gruden wasn’t sending those emails to himself, and there is no evidence yet than any recipient objected to Gruden’s words. 

Fans also shouldn’t forget that this week’s story began not with a complaint about the coach of the Raiders, but with an investigation into the workplace environment at Snyder’s Washington team.  That inquiry resulted in a $10 million fine, little more than a speeding ticket when set against the franchise’s estimated $4.2 billion value.  But Gruden’s emails are almost the only evidence from that investigation that has been made public, and that must change.

Hardest of all, of course, is turning those who benefit from their privilege into allies in the struggle.  But while that might often seem impossible, it is also essential.  In a sharp turn from the recent past when it expunged a black man from the ranks of its players because he engaged in silent, non-violent protest during pregame ceremonies, the NFL has lately been playing catchup on diversity and inclusion.  This week, some sportswriters scorned those efforts at raising awareness as hypocritical, or just commercially motivated. 

Such criticisms miss the point. It is results that matter, not motivation.  An earlier generation understood this when it used economic boycotts to effect change.  The NFL, a league run almost entirely by white men, can be an ally in the struggle, and if it is so only because of economic self-interest, so be it. But it will still require those who were born to privilege to understand what Jon Gruden did not, that their advantage is real and that words can do far more damage than a hard hit at the 40-yard line.      

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 10, 2021

Season After Season, Still Waiting For Joy

“Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright; the band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light, and somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout.”  One need not be a fan of the Great Game to recognize those lines from the final stanza of Ernest Thayer’s comic ballad “Casey at the Bat,” and most who read them can add the final line of the poem without further prompting – the one about the absence of happiness in a certain fictional town after mighty Casey failed to deliver a winning blow for the local nine. 

Asked to pick out a likely Mudville on a map, very few would point to the spot in the South Bronx where three New York subway lines – the B, D and 4 – converge at the corner of 161st Street and River Avenue.  After all, Yankee Stadium sits on the one corner of that intersection that doesn’t have stairs either going up to the overhead platform for the 4 train, or down to the underground station shared by the B and D, and the Yankees have an unmatched history of success, not just in baseball but in all of sport.  Forty times the Bronx has been the scene of games in a World Series, and in twenty-seven of those annual best-of-seven showdowns, the Yankees have come out on top.  Those numbers dwarf the participation and the success of all other MLB franchises.

But there is no joy for Yankee fans – the Great Game’s mightiest franchise has once again struck out.  With this year’s playoffs still far from over, New York is already in offseason mode, having quietly exited the postseason at the earliest possible time with a 6-2 loss to Boston in the American League Wild Card Game last Tuesday.  The lopsided defeat was a reflection of the Yankees’ consistent underperformance this year.  There was great hype beforehand, just as there had been many predictions during Spring Training that the team was a heavy favorite to win the AL East and a strong contender for a deep playoff run.  But once play began New York was clearly the inferior team Tuesday evening, just as it went through long stretches of indifferent play during the preceding months. 

Staff ace Gerrit Cole was knocked around by the Red Sox lineup, recording just six outs in the twelve batters he faced.  Cole gave up a two-run homer in the 1st and a solo shot in the 3rd before manager Aaron Boone pulled him after an outing that was his shortest stint on the mound in five years, but one that was far too long for New York’s hopes.  The offense managed just six hits off Boston starter Nathan Eovaldi and four relievers.  Half of those were delivered by the bat of Giancarlo Stanton, while the players occupying the last six spots in the Yankees’ order went a combined 1-for-20.  Impatient Yankee batters drew not a single walk, though they did swing and miss plenty, striking out eleven times.

In the wake of the debacle, fans took to social media to lament the game’s Fenway Park location, contending that a couple of Stanton drives that caromed off the Green Monster in left field and wound up being long singles would have gone into the seats at the Stadium.  Even if true – MLB’s Statcast tracking system suggested that at least one of the hits would have been just a flyout but for Fenway’s 37-foot left field wall – the complaint only served as a reminder that the Yankees had every opportunity to host the Wild Card game.  Twice in the season’s final weeks New York moved into the top AL Wild Card spot, only to lose games and ground in the standings.  Instead of taking care of business while controlling its own destiny, the team didn’t lock down its spot as the last squad in the AL playoff bracket until the regular season’s final day.

Given the franchise’s storied history, no fan of any other team is about to feel sorry for the Yankees or the faithful who, at least in non-COVID times, regularly keep the Stadium at or near the top of MLB’s attendance statistics.  But what is understandably hard for supporters of other franchises to grasp is just how that history creates its own unique expectations. 

For all his bombast, George Steinbrenner understood that.  It’s why he’d issue a public apology to fans at the end of any season that didn’t conclude with a parade up Broadway’s Canyon of Heroes in lower Manhattan.  Aaron Judge, the de facto if unofficial captain of these Yankees grasps the point as well.  Interviewed after Tuesday’s loss, he said, “I’m here to bring a championship to New York (and)…it’s kind of black and white for me.  Either you won or you didn’t win, and we didn’t win.  That to me is a failure.”

What’s less clear is whether the Yankees’ ownership and front office shares the pain of Judge and the team’s fans.  Those gaudy statistics cited above – forty World Series appearances and twenty-seven titles – were true in 2009, after the Yankees downed the Phillies four games to two and celebrated on the new Stadium’s field in its inaugural season.  But a dozen years later, the numbers haven’t changed, and only once in that time have the Yankees gotten as far as an elimination Game 7 of the ALCS.  Since its first championship in 1923, New York had been back to the Fall Classic at least once in every calendar decade.  That streak ended with the 2010s.  Since it took Miller Huggins until his sixth year at the helm to guide the Yankees to that first title, no manager has been granted a fifth year in charge without having won a championship.  That streak too seems likely to end, if as expected Aaron Boone is offered a new contract.

That would be the same Aaron Boone who after Tuesday’s defeat complained that “the league’s closed the gap on us,” as if the Yankees’ historical domination had continued over the past twelve years until this season.  Instead, seven different clubs have made multiple trips to the World Series since Mariano Rivera induced the final groundout from Shane Victorino in 2009.  Boone was pilloried on social media for the clueless comment, but the only opinion that really matters is owner Hal Steinbrenner’s, who seems content as long as tickets are being sold and the roster stays under the luxury tax threshold.  Those are simple and limited goals that might be entirely appropriate for many franchises, but expectations have always been greater in the Bronx, at least until now.  Then again, at least until now, no one would have ever confused the corner of 161st Street and River Avenue with Mudville.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 7, 2021

More Drama Than The Dodgers Deserved

Many months ago, when the year was young and the entirety of the longest season lay ahead, the popular thinking was that players who wear Dodger Blue would spend the first half of this week resting up before beginning their march through the postseason.  It would be a chance to recover a bit from the wear and tear of the six-month grind that is major league baseball’s annual schedule while manager Dave Roberts and the franchise’s front office leadership analyzed the mountains of data generated by the team’s analytics department, weighing the wisdom of including this or that utility player or situational reliever on the roster for the upcoming Division Series.  The Dodgers were overwhelmingly popular picks by fans and pundits alike, not just to make the 2021 MLB Playoffs, but to win the NL West race, thus earning a well-deserved break while lesser squads faced the drama and tension of the two leagues’ win-or-go-home Wild Card Games.

But there is always a reason why they actually play the games, though in this case not necessarily a happy one for the Dodgers’ faithful.  At season’s end L.A. was only second-best in the NL West, leaving the Dodgers with work to do just to make it to the best-of-five division round.

Still, it’s hard to construe that outcome as a failure on the part of the Dodgers.  The team finished 106-56, matching the best result in franchise history.  Down the stretch, even as the presumptive major division rival San Diego Padres crumbled, L.A. tore through its schedule, going 43-13 over the final two months, a phenomenal 124-win-season pace.  But the Dodgers began that stretch three games behind the Giants, and despite winning more than three of every four games through August and September, L.A. could not overtake San Francisco, which ended the season clinging to a one-game advantage.  San Fran’s remarkable and utterly unexpected campaign stopped the Dodgers’ eight-year run atop the NL West.  It also meant that at Chavez Ravine, the sole reward for triple-digit wins and the second-best record in the majors was getting to host a Wild Card matchup against St. Louis, another extremely hot squad that ran off a 17-game winning streak in September to climb back into the playoff chase, eventually securing the National League’s second Wild Card spot.

All that winning in the season’s final month allowed the Cardinals to post a 90-win season, a not atypical number for a Wild Card, especially since 2012, when the postseason format was changed to incorporate two such teams in each league.  But that expansion brought with it the Wild Card Game, a 9-inning roll of the dice.  Members of a .500 team at the trade deadline, St. Louis players were doubtless happy to have even that modest playoff opportunity.  But it had the makings of a rude joke on the Dodgers, a team that finished sixteen games ahead of the Cards with a record that would have easily topped the standings in any division of either league, except the one that mattered.   

For a time Wednesday night, it looked like fate might twist especially cruel for L.A. fans.  Max Scherzer, who with Trea Turner formed one of the all-time great trade deadline acquisitions by any franchise when L.A. outbid San Diego for the services of the then-Nationals back in July, was uncharacteristically lacking in command.  He surrendered a run in the 1st and couldn’t manage to throw a clean inning even as his pitch count rapidly climbed.  But while he allowed base runners, Scherzer didn’t allow any more runs, and in the home half of the 4th Justin Turner finally evened the score with a long home run off the Cardinals’ Adam Wainwright. 

The very next inning Scherzer was back in trouble, yielding a leadoff single to Tommy Edman before walking Paul Goldschmidt.  He fanned Tyler O’Neill, but in the L.A. dugout manager Roberts had decided the strikeout would be Scherzer’s final act of the drama.  Never one to leave the mound willingly, Scherzer surely didn’t like seeing Roberts on his way to the mound.  When his manager arrived and reached out for the ball, the Dodgers’ starter instead shook the offered hand.  The gesture didn’t change Roberts’s mind, as he reached into Scherzer’s glove to retrieve the baseball even as Joe Kelly jogged in from the L.A. bullpen.  Scherzer may not have been happy, but Dodgers fans were after Kelly did his job, retiring the next two batters. 

The well-traveled Kelly was the first of nine relievers who made the trek from the two bullpens.  Each was effective for his side until the very last.  With the score still knotted at 1-1 in the bottom of the 9th, St. Louis manager Mike Shildt summoned Alex Reyes to face Chris Taylor with two outs and Cody Bellinger on first.  Taylor swung and missed at the first offering, then watched the next two pitches go by below the strike zone.  Reyes’ fourth pitch was a slider that stayed up over the middle of the plate.  When bat met ball, the few in the crowd who weren’t already standing leapt to their feet as a guttural roar rose from more than 53,000 throats.  The only question was how many rows up in the left field seats the walk-off two-run homer would land.  The answer looked to be eight or ten.

If only because it is so rare, the presence of a 106-win team in a Wild Card Game won’t lead to changes in MLB’s postseason format.  But just as the Great Game’s regular season is lengthy, the sport’s remaining postseason rounds involve a series of games, and for good reason.  The outcome of any single contest can turn on numerous factors, some of them quite random.  It takes multiple games to lessen that element of chance and increase the likelihood of the best team prevailing.  Sustained regular season excellence such as L.A. showed this year deserves a better reward than a single nine-inning crapshoot.

Still, thanks to one swing of Chris Taylor’s bat the Dodgers will play on, traveling up the coast to visit the Giants Friday for Game 1 of the round almost everyone thought would be the team’s starting point in this year’s playoffs.  It is a Division Series between this season’s two winningest teams, the twin parts of a venerable rivalry that spans both coasts.  Yet while the two franchises met in 1951 and 1962 in the netherworld between the regular and postseason (MLB appropriately counts tiebreaker games as part of the regular season), the Giants and Dodgers have not met in the playoffs since 1889, long before MLB’s modern era.  For all these reasons the NLDS that is about to get underway has the makings of an epic showdown.  Then again, they still have to actually play the games.

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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