Baseball is back! The first three days of the long-delayed 2020 MLB season are officially in the books, and while the seats remain empty, the first round of box scores have been filled. With most major sports leagues still figuring out its respective plans, the first baseball games on Thursday captured the sports-starved nation’s attention: according to ESPN, an average of four million people tuned in to watch the Yankees beat the Nationals in a storm-shortened game, more than tripling the 2019 numbers. It was the most-watched regular season game since 2011.
Granted, many of those viewers may have only been watching to see if this wacky experiment of a season actually works. And if they turned it off after seeing Dr. Anthony Fauci’s truly horrible first pitch attempt in Washington, I wouldn’t be surprised. At least you tried!
The early storylines from this week range from the unexpected to the unprecedented, with plenty of ordinary oddities in-between. Today we’re running through them all quicker than David Bell’s bullpen calls.
Expanded Playoffs On the Way
The biggest piece of news to come out this week was something rumored for awhile: MLB will be implementing an expanded playoff format in 2020 to give more teams a chance after the short season. Meaning for the first time in history, 16 teams will have a shot at reaching the World Series in October. In the new format, the six division winners will be joined by each division’s runner-up and the two best wild-card teams from each league who didn’t finish in the former two categories. The postseason will be set up in a bracket-style, similar to the NBA, with teams seeded 1-8 in each league in order of record. Gone are the gut-wrenching winner-take-all wild card games, now replaced by three-game series across the board in the first round.
The biggest takeaway here is probably that it will mean a lot more competitive, meaningful games down the stretch, as mid-tier teams fight for a chance to make an unexpected run to glory. It means more fans get to experience the roller coaster fun of October baseball, and potentially could build a larger profile for the sport as a whole.
However, it also comes as something of a slap in the face to the top teams, who suddenly will have much less of an advantage as reward for winning their division. The more you think about it, the less sense it makes. But hey, that’s baseball, right?
Seeds 1-3 will go to the division winners based on record.
Seeds 4-6 will go to the runners-up based on record.
Seeds 7 and 8 will be based on record.
Thus, there is a possibility the third-best division winner actually plays a worse team than the two best division winners.
— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) July 23, 2020
In my humble opinion, MLB knew this would make people angry—there was simply no way around it. But as I said last week, it’s already a season of chaos. You can either look the other way or lean into it, and I already know which option is a lot more fun.
No Fans, No Problem
Perhaps the biggest question going into this weekend was the one that mattered the least: what would it be like having baseball games with no fans? Well, as it turns out, not that different. The games went on just fine, and the world didn’t explode. I barely even noticed the piped-in crowd noise, and the cardboard cutouts behind home plate were remarkably well-behaved.
Some clubs even got creative with their artificial fans. ESPN hilariously put up a cutout of broadcaster Chipper Jones at Citi Field in New York, seated with his son Shea, who he named after Shea Stadium—the very ballpark where he tormented the Mets for 2o years.
— New York Post (@nypost) July 24, 2020
Meanwhile, Mets infielder Jeff McNeil decided to put up an adorable mock-up of his dog, Willow, out in right field. Then former Red Adam Duvall spoiled her viewing experience entirely.
Reds Doing Reds Things
Speaking of the Reds, it was an eventful first few days for MLB’s first team. They split the first two games against the Detroit Tigers despite a pair of terrific pitching performances from aces Sonny Gray and Luis Castillo. The offense brought the thunder as well, hitting five home runs through Saturday including a pair of moonshots by Joey Votto. New acquisition Mike Moustakas hit the ground running, going 4-for-8 with a home run and four RBIs so far.
The culprit in yesterday’s 6-4 loss, unsurprisingly, was the bullpen. You can read all about it in KSR’s recap, and while you’re at it, go ahead and follow Brandon Ramsey (@BRamseyKSR) for all things Reds coverage this year. The rubber game vs. the Tigers is going on as this article is posted, as righthander Trevor Bauer seeks to right the ship in his first start of the season.
Players Speak Out on Social Justice
One of the biggest storylines in MLB this year, as in all sports, is the ongoing silent protests of police brutality in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Among those taking part by taking a knee either before or during the national anthem were the Dodgers’ Mookie Betts, Yankees’ Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Hicks, and multiple members of the San Francisco Giants. They were joined by players on nearly every team in the league with various gestures of solidarity ranging from raised fists to social media messages.
In recent weeks, multiple Reds players have shown their support by wearing Black Lives Matter shirts during warmups. The team doubled down on its support on opening weekend, as reliever Amir Garrett knelt with several Tigers players during the anthem Friday night. Earlier in the week, he was joined by Votto, Phillip Ervin, and Alex Blandino. The protests are expected to continue.
Bat Cat Update (Get Ready to Cry)
In case you missed it, it was a big weekend for former UK slugger Evan White. Not only did he make his Major League debut starting at first base for the Mariners on Friday, but he collected his first hit with an infield single in the ninth inning against the Astros. Then after the game, the team surprised him with this personalized congratulatory video from his family, who obviously couldn’t attend given the circumstances. Give it a watch if you want to experience some ~emotions~.
Even though they couldn’t be there for his debut, this moment was everything for Evan White’s family. ? pic.twitter.com/MBEwpwcOgK
— Seattle Mariners (@Mariners) July 25, 2020
Also: shouts to Trevor Gott for picking up his second big league save on Saturday, closing out a 5-4 victory against the absolutely stacked Dodgers. The kid might just have a future!
Story of the Week: Daniel Bard
With all due respect to this hilarious twitter exchange, the story of the week comes from Texas, where 35-year-old Rockies reliever Daniel Bard pitched an inning and a third to pick up the win on Saturday afternoon. Why is significant? Mainly because he hadn’t appeared in an MLB game in over seven years.
Back in 2011, Bard was a rising star in the Red Sox bullpen, notching 60-plus strikeouts in three consecutive seasons and regular touching triple-digits on the radar gun. Then, thanks to injuries, unsuccessful mechanical adjustments, and a bad case of the yips, he just… lost it. Unable to control his pitches, he struggled mightily, was released by the Red Sox, and officially retired in 2017.
After two years of coaching with the Arizona Diamondbacks, he decided to give it another shot this year. It’s worked out pretty well. Give this article a click if you have the time, because it may be the best comeback story since Rick Ankiel.