Relief revolution: Highlights, themes from a wild postseason
It all started with a dubious decision that drew heavy criticism: Baltimore manager Buck Showalter left stud closer Zach Britton in the bullpen and lost the AL wild-card game at Toronto.
The next night, Giants ace Madison Bumgarner authored another October masterpiece to knock out the Mets – and the 2016 playoffs were off and running.
Seems so long ago, but it was only a month on the calendar.
One captivating month.
Baseball's storybook postseason offered almost everything: unlikely stars, 4-hour games, even a rain delay in extra innings during the dramatic World Series finale.
And when it was over, the Chicago Cubs – yes, finally, the Cubs – outlasted Cleveland 8-7 early Thursday in a Game 7 that took 10 innings for their first championship since 1908.
Here are some other highlights, themes and takeaways from an October/November to remember:
RELIEF ROLES REDEFINED
Some wonder whether we just saw the beginning of a baseball revolution. Lights-out relievers like Andrew Miller, Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen weren't necessarily saved for the eighth or ninth inning of critical games. Miller entered as early as the fifth, Chapman in the seventh, as managers summoned their best bullpen arms for longer outings and asked them to face top hitters or pitch out of potential jams earlier than usual.
Almost as if nobody wanted to make the same mistake Showalter did.
It's a strategy long supported by the sabermetrics crowd, but would it work during the regular season when there aren't as many days off to rest and recover?
''Of course it's possible. You just have to have the right guy. I mean, it's not as easy as it looks, what they've been doing,'' Cubs manager Joe Maddon said during the World Series. ''The point of diminishing returns I think would set in if you try to push it from Day One.
''So right now, it's really being glamorized a bit,'' he added. ''This isn't Fantasy Baseball. These guys are human. They only have so many abilities to throw a baseball within the year.''
KEEP ON CHASING
While the Cubs at last ended baseball's longest championship drought, several other teams are still trying to get over the hump.
The Nationals are 0 for 3 in playoff series since moving to Washington, and Texas has never won the World Series despite five postseason appearances in seven years. The big-budget Dodgers haven't even reached the Series since Orel Hershiser, Kirk Gibson & Co. won in 1988. Toronto came up short again, losing the AL Championship Series for the second consecutive year. And the Indians, of course, came oh-so close to their first title since 1948.
Some of the most exciting performances came from players in their early 20s. Cleveland shortstop Francisco Lindor, Cubs second baseman Javier Baez (NLCS co-MVP) and Washington rookie Trea Turner were among those who turned heads. The future looks bright for all three.
Big names such as Kris Bryant, Jose Bautista and Adrian Gonzalez had their moments. But the postseason also belonged to near-unknowns like Ezequiel Carrera (Toronto), Conor Gillaspie (San Francisco) and Ryan Merritt (Cleveland).
THE ARTFUL DODGER
Once again, Los Angeles ace Clayton Kershaw entered October looking to put a history of playoff failures behind him. The three-time Cy Young Award winner pitched on short rest whenever needed and went 2-1 with a huge save, but was far from overwhelming. He lost 5-0 in Game 6 of the NLCS at Wrigley Field, eliminating the Dodgers, and is 4-7 with a 4.55 ERA in the postseason. Hardly numbers befitting the best pitcher in baseball.
Rather than a World Series coronation, David Ortiz got an early exit. His illustrious career came to a sudden conclusion when Boston was swept by Cleveland in their AL Division Series. Big Papi walked back out to the mound, waved his cap and soaked up a standing ovation from the Fenway Park faithful.
Hall of Fame broadcaster Vin Scully took a curtain call at Dodger Stadium during the NLCS. The 88-year-old announcer, weeks after ending his 67-year career behind the microphone, attended as a spectator and proclaimed, ''It's time for Dodger baseball!'' from an upstairs suite.
And 39-year-old Cubs catcher David Ross homered in his big league finale to help Chicago win Game 7 of the World Series. In a rare and heartwarming scene, the wildly popular Grandpa Rossy was carried off the field on the shoulders of his teammates.
What a way to say goodbye.