Baseball Tease Day

Rafael Devers

Wings and prayers—Rafael Devers’s tiebreaking two-run blast in the ninth Sunday punched the Red Sox’s ticket to the AL wild card game . . .

Crisis addicts of the world, unite. You won’t get the greatest possible fix for your addiction on what might have been Baseball Chaos Day. In fact, you’re getting a day off for reasonably good behaviour.

But at least you get four of the game’s most deeply storied franchises in the wild card games. That’s something, isn’t it?

If major league baseball fans must continue to bear with the thrills and chills of watching teams fight to the last breath to finish . . . in second place, at least you get to see the Cardinals host the Dodgers in the National League wild card game, and the Red Sox host the Yankees in the American League game. Right?

I know. I know. The crisis junkies among baseball’s fans were spoiling for that National League West tie between the Giants and the Dodgers. They wanted that four-way American League wild card tie so badly they could wrap themselves in it like frozen food in Reynolds Wrap.

The Blue Jays did their absolute best to make it happen when they parboiled the Orioles 12-4 Sunday afternoon. But the Mariners let them down by being unable to get past what was left of this year’s Angels.

Maybe we should have had a hint when Shohei Ohtani started the finish of his surrealistic individual season by hitting Mariners lefthander Tyler Anderson’s third pitch of the game about twelve rows into the right field seats.

Home run number 46, RBI number 100, for the guy who also finishes 2021 with a 3.18 ERA and a 10.8 strikeout-per-nine rate on the mound. If you can’t win it, just start playing spoiler. Ohtani’s surreal season could have finished a lot worse than becoming the Angels’ must-see-television in the injury-created absence of their all-universe Mike Trout.

The Mariners let themselves down, too, after a surprise season of playing slightly over their own heads to get thatclose to postseason-opening mayhem. Those were real tears in young outfielder Jarred Kelenic’s eyes as well as veteran third baseman Kyle Seager’s, when their run came one port short in losing two of three to the Angels over the weekend.

“It wasn’t a team where we were just more talented than the other team every single day,” said Seager postgame, after what may yet prove his last game as a Mariner, “but you had a group that just collectively played together and they collectively tried to win every single night.”

Trouble was, the Nationals couldn’t keep the Red Sox down despite opening an early 5-1 lead against them in Nationals Park. They couldn’t stop Red Sox third baseman Rafael Devers from hitting a hefty solo home run to open the top of the fourth and a five-all-tiebreaking two-run shot in the top of the ninth—with former National Kyle Schwarber, who’d reached on an inning-opening infield error—aboard ahead of him.

But two years after the Nats’ staggering World Series win, at least they could bask a little in the home crowd’s applause for possibly-retiring first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, the last truly Original Nat, the franchise’s first first-round draftee to play in their silks after moving from Montreal, when lifted from the game after the seventh. Even the Red Sox joined the applause unapologetically. Aretha Franklin used to spell that r-e-s-p-e-c-t.

Meanwhile, the American League East champion Rays battled the Yankees scoreless until the ninth. The Yankees even flashed something resembling past glories when third baseman Gio Urshela channeled his inner Derek Jeter in the sixth, chasing Austin Meadows’s foul pop 126 feet from an overshift position and catching it on the track, before he fell in a heap onto an empty spot on the Rays’ dugout bench.

But after Rays starter Michael Wacha pitched one-hit ball over five innings and the Yankees threw six pitchers at the Rays, Aaron Judge—the towering, snaggle-toothed, boyish-looking face of the Yankees—picked the right spot to deliver the first walk-off winner of his major league career.

With Rays reliever Andrew Kittredge freshly installed, after Josh Fleming allowed second and third with one out, Judge ripped a liner off Kittredge’s glove toward second, Tyler Wade dove home ahead of a throw from Rays second baseman Brandon Lowe. Thus the Yankees ducked a coming day’s chaos. “I wouldn’t say we exhaled,” Judge said of it postgame. “We still have work to do.”

Meanwhile, in San Francisco, the Padres’ second-half implosion finished when they all but rolled over and played dead for most of an 11-4 loss to the Giants. Enabling the Giants to become the first in Show ever to win their 107th regular season game while clinching a title on the regular season’s final regular day. Leaving the Dodgers, 10-3 assassins over the NL Central-winning Brewers, to deal with the Cardinals in the league’s wild card game.

That ages-old blood feud between the Giants and the Dodgers would just have to wait for a possible showdown in a National League division series, assuming the Dodgers get past a Cardinals aggregation that managed to do what enough teams couldn’t this year—shake off a few serious injuries and a few tough spells to get to at least the postseason’s entry game.

The Padres made life just a little too simple for the Giants Sunday afternoon. They had no answer for Giants starter Logan Webb—who struck out eight and, at the plate, threw in a line drive, insult-to-injury two-run homer in the fifth—until they finally chased him with three straight base hits in the eighth.

Entering the season it sometimes seemed as if the Padres were anointed the lords of the National League West by default and the Giants were anointed lucky to survive the races at all. But while growing pains, internal dissensions, key pitching injuries, and manager Jayce Tingler’s exposure as an inconsistent in-game thinker came more vivid as the Padres season went deeper, the Giants surprised just about the entire baseball world with their ability to hang with the Dodgers and take it literally to the last day.

Veteran or largely-veteran teams don’t work anymore, right? Baseball’s for the young, right? Letting the kids play means the veterans can’t romp, right? The Giants would like a few words with you. Their veterans played up and had just as much fun as the kiddie corps. And the Giants took their remarkable season right down to the wire to beat the Dodgers out for the title by one game.

“I think we all knew at the beginning of the season, or even dating back to the beginning of spring training, what the projections are and what the industry sort of thought of us as a club,” said Giants manager Gabe Kapler, who’d finally figured out what he couldn’t in Philadelphia—analytics hoists and supports you going in, but you’d better marry that to what’s in front of you inning by inning if you want to get the full job done.

“What I realized,” he continued, “is there are some intangibles that those projections and viewpoints failed to take into consideration.” There’s never a thing wrong with having the most possible information to open a game, but when it’s married unsuccessfully to the moments to come while you play, the offspring is usually disaster.

The Giants, the Brewers, the AL Central-winning White Sox, the Astros, and the NL East-winning Braves have to wait to begin their postseason dances. It’s both poetic and problematic that the party begins with the Olde Towne Team hosting the Empire Emeritus in a win-or-be-gone wild card game.

Poetic because of that similarly ages-old Yankee-Red Sox blood feud. Problematic because of . . . that ages-old feud having its script flipped in this century.

Go ahead and point to all those pennants and World Series rings, Yankee fan. You’ve only got one of those rings to show in the 21st Century. You may have the upper hand in division triumphs but that smothering Yankee dominance is just so 20th Century now. That’s the Red Sox sitting with four 21st Century World Series rings now.

If there’s one other thing by which the Yankees hold an edge over the Red Sox this time around, it’s a fan base that clings to “To err is human, to forgive cannot be Yankee policy” like a religious catechism. Calling for the manager’s perp walk and summary execution after a tough loss? Yankee manager Aaron Boone gets it after a tough inning as often as not.

The man who did what no Yankee manager before him could—lead his teams to back-to-back 100-wins-or-more seasons in his first two on the bridge—and has a .601 winning percentage as a Yankee manager must feel fortunate that his boss’s name is Hal, not George Steinbrenner. Hal Steinbrenner doesn’t have his father’s notorious hair trigger. It’s saved New York’s sanitation corps from barrels worth of washing blood from the streets around the House That Ruthless Built.

Maybe their own long-enough and disastrous enough history has finally given Red Sox Nation what some people thought would have been impossible to fathom—the patience of Job—compared to their counterparts turning to the south Bronx. The AL wild card game hasn’t been played yet, of course, but you don’t exactly hear Red Sox fans saying, to themselves and aloud, “OK, when’s it going to happen” and mean disaster over delight before the game actually begins.

Those two fan bases get only one day’s worth of living on the edge. If the Dodgers treat the Cardinals’ grand old man Adam Wainwright like target practise in the NL wild card game, the Dodger-Giant rivalry gets three games minimum, five maximum to go nuclear.

If the Cardinals treat the Dodgers’ cleverly imported grand old man Max (The Knife) Scherzer rudely, Giantland and Cardinal Country get to relive the 2014 disaster—disaster for the Cardinals, that is. This time, though, the Cardinals won’t have Mike Matheny on the bridge to decide The Book was more important than The Moment. Mike Schildt won’t risk paying through the feathers by allowing a Giant pennant to sail into the crowd atop Levi’s Landing behind right field. I think.

It’s enough to make you feel almost sorry for the White Sox facing the Astros in an American League division series. Even their first postseason meeting since the 2005 World Series the White Sox swept—that was before the Astros were traded to the American League, of course—doesn’t have half the blood boil potential. I think.

Baseball Chaos Day? Sunday’s regular season finales amounted more to Baseball Tease Time. It was fun to watch—but it was hell to pay. But as Hall of Fame scribe Jayson Stark would say, because . . . baseball!

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