Evan Longoria, connoisseur of Game 162s, was a regular baseball fan Wednesday afternoon. Before playing their season finale, the Tampa Bay Rays tuned into the drama unfolding nearly 3,000 miles away.
What they saw on the clubhouse televisions must have looked familiar, a worthy successor to last year’s spectacle at Tropicana Field — if not quite as serendipitous. Once again, the favorite lost. Once again, America met new heroes — with names like Evan Scribner, Brandon Moss and Derek Norris. Once again, the unlikeliest victors — this time, the renegade Oakland A’s — stomped on the infield.
Longoria is the undisputed heavyweight champion of season finales, by virtue of his low-flying walk-off homer to win last year’s American League wild card. This season brought new intrigue, in the form of an additional postseason berth in each league— not to mention the sport’s first Triple Crown winner in 45 years in the person of Detroit Tigers marvel Miguel Cabrera.
Game 162 offered compelling theatre, coast to coast, afternoon to night, in a way that made you think this might become baseball’s new annual holiday. And if it made Longoria stop what he was doing to absorb it all, that says something, doesn’t it?
“We watched it,” Longoria said of Oakland’s 12-5 win over the shell-shocked Texas Rangers. “As a baseball person, I think the second wild card did what it was intended to do. It made the races down the stretch interesting for everybody. To see what Oakland did, playing all the way to Game 162, having a game that matters, going out there and getting that division title, it’s impressive.”
Longoria was so inspired that he went out and hit three home runs. Seriously. That was one more for him in this year’s Game 162 than last year’s edition. His Rays didn’t win the second wild card, but they ended their season with a 4-1 victory over the team that did — the Baltimore Orioles, cross-country cousins of the surprising A’s.
Now, officially, baseball is stepping away from all it used to know about October. The postseason has been set (fortunately or unfortunately) without the need for throbbing Thursday tiebreakers. But the single-elimination madness Bud Selig craved is less than 48 hours away. The Atlanta Braves host the St. Louis Cardinals Friday at 5:07 p.m. ET, followed by the Orioles and Rangers in Texas at 8:37 p.m.
One and done. We knew it was coming. Entire seasons distilled to nine innings, a franchise’s hopes pinned to a single starting pitcher, hundreds of thousands in playoff shares riding on an umpire’s call with two out in the eighth.
“I think the best situation moving forward is going to be to expand that one-game playoff into a little longer series,” he said. “I don’t know how real that chance is.
“One game is one game. You talk about one game in the scheme of 162-game season . . . If you’re not lined up with your No. 1 or 2 starter, or if you’ve got a couple guys banged up, it makes it tough to play one game and go home after that.”
Think the Texas Rangers (with rookie Yu Darvish set to pitch) contemplated that during their flight from Oakland?
Two weeks ago — maybe one week ago — you could have found players around the American League who viewed Texas as the team to beat. The Rangers won the pennant in 2010 and 2011, the thinking went, so the mantle is theirs until proven otherwise. But after (historically) fumbling a five-game lead with nine to play, they may not survive until Saturday.
It’s telling that — in the American League, at least — the team that would be the scariest to face (Tampa Bay) didn’t even qualify for the postseason. The Orioles arrived at Tropicana Field Monday having averaged 7.75 runs during a four-game winning streak, but the Rays’ otherworldly pitching staff turned their bats hollow. Baltimore managed only five runs in three games, with the Orioles’ lone win coming by a 1-0 count.
The postseason field doesn’t include a clear frontrunner in either league, which underscores just how balanced/chaotic this postseason is going to be. The best-of-five division series has been unpredictable over the years, but now it’s a veritable dice roll. In order to compress the schedule by eliminating travel days, lower seeds are hosting the first two games. If a higher seed loses both, there’s no guarantee of more than one home date.
Think we might hear some grumbling about that, if a certain Bronx-based team is bounced by this time next week?
Truth is, the Yankees wouldn’t be the AL favorite under the traditional 2-2-1 format, because, in 2012, there is no such thing. The Yankees have their usual rotation concerns, which, in fairness, should be mitigated by a matchup with the wild-card winner. The free-wheeling A’s will be more subdued when we see them next, trudging to the batter’s box against ace Justin Verlander in Detroit on Saturday evening.
In the National League draw, the Washington Nationals finished with the best record in the majors (98-64) but only the fifth-best in the NL since Sept. 1. We must point out — one more time — that their pitching advantage evaporated when Stephen Strasburg threw his final pitch of the season. The Nationals ranked just 14th among the 30 major league teams with a 3.93 ERA in September.
The best ERA in September? That would be the Braves, who will oppose the Nationals as long as the unbeatable Kris Medlen pitches up to his reputation Friday evening.
It’s similarly difficult to handicap the other NL series, which begins with Matt Cain on the mound at a raucous AT&T Park — the combination that produced 21-1/3 innings and no earned runs in the 2010 postseason. The Giants tied for the NL’s best record from Sept. 1 onward — Melky who? — but they (surprisingly) don’t have a clear pitching edge on the Reds, who finished with the lower team ERA.
At the very least, we’re able to fill out our brackets — these newfangled creations with a box off to the side, to be decided Friday night. We never know what is going to happen in October. This year, we really don’t. The A’s were champions of Game 162, but that reign lasts only a day or two. Let the second season begin, in a way it never has before.