In the late afternoon sun, the shadows long at Oracle Park, San Francisco Giants batter Austin Slater sighed and jammed his hands onto his hips and manager Gabe Kapler gestured unhappily from the dugout. Hunter Pence bobbed happily on a boat called “Bravo” in McCovey Cove. And we’d clattered to the bottom of the regular-season stairway.
Among the final pitches relevant to what would come next — a month of playoff baseball that will open Tuesday afternoon, include 16 teams and come with all the warnings about a virus that could bring it all to a halt — was a low-and-away fastball called a strike, probably too low and too away and called a strike anyway. It eliminated the Giants from a postseason that will be the most crowded and chaotic in league history, hoisted the Milwaukee Brewers and sent everyone off to their appointed best-of-threes.
In the National League, whose playoffs open Wednesday, Sunday ended as it began: Brewers at Los Angeles Dodgers, Cincinnati Reds at Atlanta Braves, Miami Marlins at Chicago Cubs, St. Louis Cardinals at San Diego Padres.
In the American League, a few hours of baseball scrambled the seedings and landed on the same eight: Toronto Blue Jays at Tampa Bay Rays, Chicago White Sox at Oakland A’s, Houston Astros at Minnesota Twins, New York Yankees at Cleveland Indians.
Two teams with losing records — the Brewers and Astros — were in. Two teams who’d finished in last place a year ago — the Marlins and Padres — were in.
The defending World Series champions — the Washington Nationals — were out. So were the World Series champions from the year before that — the Boston Red Sox (which, granted, was expected.) In fact, in the minutes before they finished up Sunday in Atlanta, at 24-36 and in last place in the AL East, the Red Sox fired manager Ron Roenicke. The team with Mike Trout — the Los Angeles Angels — were out and then fired their general manager. The Toronto Blue Jays, who lost 95 games a year ago and this summer played not a single game in their home park — or home city, were in. The two teams wholly ravaged by COVID-19 and therefore sentenced to doubleheaders upon doubleheaders, the Cardinals and Marlins, were in.
Also, the 43-win Dodgers and 40-win Rays were in by a mile and rewarded with best-of-three series that will be over — for better or worse — before their hamstrings are fully warm.
Yet, here we are, after it at times hardly seemed possible, and so Brewers manager Craig Counsell observed for reporters Sunday evening, “There’s no reason to apologize for getting into the playoffs.”
Across a good part of a summer in which the game was obligated to show up and keep its distance, to breathe deeply and hide its face, to commit fully unless it didn’t really want to, baseball played all but two of those 60 games times 30 teams. This was not a small achievement.
Like the parts of America that were able, baseball returned to work in about the worst of circumstances. As with your favorite corner spot, you couldn’t actually step into the place, but they’d drop off at your front door, which wasn’t the same when nothing else was either.
By Sunday afternoon, two months of baseball had (mostly) dodged a virus with an attitude, survived a labor pillow fight, adjourned to see to broader injustices, persevered through tired and broken elbows and shoulders and then, finally, suddenly, arrived at the hour when fewer than half of those 30 teams would be sent home.
Yeah, it got a little weird, because it had to be, because everything else was.
Among its many potential conclusions, a majority of those having seeding implications, the regular season’s final day also might’ve led to it not being the regular season’s final day at all. The Cardinals, in spite of playing 53 games in 44 days, still hadn’t paid off their COVID-19 debt, and therefore if things turned poorly for them — or not entirely well — a doubleheader in Detroit awaited Monday. They beat the Brewers.
The Philadelphia Phillies of Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto and Joe Girardi were in with a win. They were shut out. By late afternoon, the Giants only had to win. They did not. And so in 14 clubhouses a season that had demanded more of them in the ways of lifestyle and accountability than any in their lives, that was long and grueling in its way, that was over almost before it started in others, was gone.
Ultimately, the 2020 regular season answered the question, What if there weren’t so many games? Also, What if there were a more inclusive postseason? Then, What if there wasn’t a baseball team in Boston?
If you managed not to step on a rake or lose your keys or forget which of your arms is dominant you will play on.
What awaits, then, is Gerrit Cole against Shane Bieber, Yankees against Indians, in Cleveland on Tuesday. A repeat of the 2018 NLCS, Brewers against Dodgers, in Los Angeles on Wednesday. The Marlins, now Derek Jeter’s Marlins, in the playoffs for the first time since 2013, and the White Sox, after 11 dark Octobers, a year ahead of themselves perhaps, just as the Padres grew up almost overnight. Dusty Baker, 71 years old, leads his fifth team — the Astros — into the postseason. Sandy Alomar, subbing for the ailing Terry Francona in Cleveland, leads his first, as do Toronto’s Charlie Montoyo, both Chicago managers, San Diego’s Jayce Tingler and Cincinnati’s David Bell.
They’ll settle this warped, wayward and unsettling season as they should, in a free for all, and may the hottest team win. They made it this far. And maybe they — those who won as well as those who didn’t — finished with their hands on their knees, pulling breaths from air they couldn’t always trust, thinking all they’d just done was really hard. Also, maybe, that they’re just getting started.
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