A lot can change in a week. And in a year where more than half the teams in Major League Baseball make the playoffs, it’s easy to go from zero to hero (or vice-versa) in a short amount of time.
Ask the Reds, who won six in a row and moved as high as the six-spot in the National League playoffs after looking dead and buried last week. Ask the Yankees, who were flat-out memorialized by the media (myself included) last week when they fell to .500, on the brink of missing the playoffs, before rattling off 10 straight W’s to move comfortably back into the four-spot. Then ask the dirty stinkin’ Cardinals, who had a spot in the postseason nearly secured until they lost 7 out of 10, including two to the Reds last weekend, to find themselves on the outside looking in (they have since rebounded thanks to the instant-relief treatment that is playing the Pirates).
Sure, it’s a fluky year. Streaks happen, and most of them mean nothing in the grand scheme. But folks, we’re in September, and that’s when good fortune becomes magic. A hot streak now can turn into a World Series championship in a month.
On this week’s MLB Roundup, we’re mapping out the playoff implications in each league from the most chaotic week of the year so far, just nine days away from the start of postseason play. Plus: possible news on the future of the sport, and some of the weirdest baseball oddities you’ve heard yet.
A.L. Report: South Side Sorcery
If you’ve been reading these posts for a while, you may have noticed that I’m prone to hyperbole when it comes to exciting baseball things. Maybe I just haven’t been properly jaded yet. But get ready for a little more, because there are a lot of fun things happening in the sport right now, and one of those things is the rise of the Chicago White Sox.
Not only are the South-Siders now guaranteed to finish with their first over-.500 record since 2012 this year, but after a sweltering month where they won 24 of 31 games, they overtook the top spot in the American League this week and clinched their first playoff appearance since 2008.
So how have they done it, you ask? By rebuilding, making shrewd trades for prospects (then letting the young guns show their stuff at the highest level), and spending money on veterans when necessary. Although the club has been led by internal veterans Tim Anderson (a 2013 draft pick) and Jose Abreu (an international signee from Cuba in 2013), the newfound success was sparked by prospects earned via trade (Eloy Jimenez, Yoan Moncada, Lucas Giolito and Dylan Cease) and veteran free agent signings (Dallas Keuchel, Yasmani Grandal and Edwin Encarnacion). Oh, yeah: and they should have Fernando Tatis, Jr., too.
While the Sox battle Tampa Bay for the top seed, there were plenty of other shake-ups in the American League standings this week. Minnesota and Oakland have already joined the above two as postseason-clinchers, and the Yankees are close behind, as their surge has them jostling with the Twins for home-field advantage in the first round. Here’s the latest playoff picture for the A.L.:
One thing to watch: the Mariners, who hold the longest playoff drought in professional sports at 18 years and counting, are just three games out with eight left to play. Yes, I’m saying there’s a chance, damnit!
N.L. Report: Leaps and (Re)Bounds
Here’s a fun fact for your Sunday ponderations: since they were expanded into existence in 1993, the Miami (née Florida) Marlins have made the postseason exactly twice, in 1997 and 2003. Both years, the team scraped together a wild card appearance with a roster solid players and few stars (the highest-WAR players were Kevin Brown and a 31-year-old Ivan Rodriguez, respectively). And both years, the Marlins got hot in October and won the World Series.
Now it’s September 2020, and baring a final-week collapse, the Marlins are going to make the playoffs. The team’s recently completed 6-2 week included the culmination of a seven-game series win against the division-rival Philadelphia Phillies and a weekend drubbing of the last-place (wait, what?) Washington Nationals. As of the writing of this post, the Fish are 28-24, sitting in the N.L.’s No. 5 seed slot with a 2.5 game postseason cushion. Given the L.A. Dodgers’ dominance, Miami reaching the Fall Classic this year would take nothing short of a miracle… but we’ve seen it before, no?
In other news, the Giants are out and the Reds are in (more on that below). The bottom of the N.L. playoff standings are practically a revolving door at this point, but as of Sunday morning, the order looks a little something like this:
One thing to watch: given the gap between L.A. and everyone else, the difference between the No. 7 and No. 8 seeds is massive. Expect the Reds, Phillies, Marlins and Cardinals to be in a battle till the finish hoping to move up the ladder.
One-and-done? Maybe not, says Manfred
The most incendiary news to come out this week was a report from the Washington Post in which MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said that the 16-team short-season playoff format of this year may become “a permanent part of our landscape.” His reasoning? Well, the owners like it.
The report also included details of this year’s playoff schedule, which will be hosted by the higher-seeded team in the first round, then neutral sites in Houston, Arlington, San Diego and L.A. for the later rounds, and feature zero off-days. But for the average fan, the biggest news was the idea of keeping the expanded format—and lemme tell ya, the average fan was not happy.
Even if you ignore the absurdity of using the “make the owners happy” rationale to justify a move that would alter the competitive balance of the league for good, it was a profoundly strange decision on Manfred’s part to say this publicly just as the sport was reaching the most exciting point of a barely-salvaged season. Once again, MLB’s most powerful figure has painted himself as completely out of touch with the fans he desperately needs to please… and I’ll admit, it’s a little concerning.
What do you think about the possibility of expanded playoffs in 2021 and beyond?
Reds Update: A Nearly Suckless Week!
Well, what do you know? Insufferable optimism sometimes pays off! After (under)performing at an incredibly mediocre level all season, the Reds (28-27) finally made the push they needed this week to give themselves a fighting chance in October. Thanks to a late-series rally against the Cardinals, a sweep of the Pirates and an impressive series victory against the first-place White Sox this weekend, the Redlegs are on track for the playoffs!
As KSR’s Brandon Ramsey discussed in his celebratory mea culpa on Thursday, the biggest catalysts for in this 7-1 week have been the pitching staff, led by Trevor Bauer, Luis Castillo and a miraculously improved bullpen. At the plate, hot streaks from Joey Votto and Shogo Akiyama have been timely.
What does it mean? At the very least, we’ve got something tangible to root for going forward. The postseason is by no means assured, but given the talent on this Reds roster compared to who they’re fighting in the standings, there’s plenty of reason to feel good. Like I said last week, with this rotation backed by an even semi-competent bullpen, a playoff run is certainly possible.
Highlight of the Week: Alec Mills Delivers
Nearly lost in the shuffle of a wild sports day last Sunday that included NFL opening weekend, NBA Playoffs, NHL Playoffs and the U.S. Open, Chicago Cubs pitcher Alec Mills threw the second no-hitter of 2020, joining Lucas Giolito (how ’bout those windy city teams, huh?).
There’s no doubt that this was one of the stranger no-no’s we’ve seen, owing mostly to excellent defensive positioning, pitch control and a little luck. But that doesn’t make it any less cool, especially considering Mills’ story:
Baseball is incredible. Alec Mills wasn’t recruited to the University of Tennessee at Martin. He walked by practice one day and told the coach he was good enough to pitch on the team. A tryout followed. 22nd round pick. Today, he threw a no-hitter for the @Cubs. @MLBNetwork @MLB
— Jon Morosi (@jonmorosi) September 13, 2020
Give the highlights above a watch, if you have the time. There’s nothing better than a good post-game catcher bear hug.
- Twins 3B Josh Donaldson had a fine time trotting around the bases after hitting a home run on Thursday, but he was ejected before he could even make it back to the dugout… for kicking dirt?
- According to The Athletic’s Jayson Stark, Alec Mills’ no-hitter was the first in the modern era in which there were 100 pitches thrown by the other team that was higher in velocity than his own fastest offering on the day (91 mph).
- Speaking of, uh, change-ups, Yankees IF DJ LeMahieu hit a home run on a 48.7-mph pitch from Blue Jays infielder Santiago Espinal during a 20-6 blowout on Wednesday. It was easily the slowest pitch to be hit for a dinger since pitch-tracking data became available in 2008.
- During the Mets-Braves game Sunday, a massive fire broke out just outside of Citi Field. Even as smoke clouded the centerfield camera, the Mets kept playing, because they’re used to this.
- COMING: Braves veteran LHP Cole Hamels – activated from the 60-day IL and started against the Orioles on Wednesday, allowing three runs in 3.1 innings pitched. His return could be crucial for the N.L. East division-leaders, who have the most prolific offense in the game but lost every single preseason starter to injury.
- GOING: Astros veteran RHP Justin Verlander – officially out for the season (and next) after opting to undergo Tommy John surgery on Saturday. The future Hall-of-Famer will be 39 years old and a free agent when he returns in 2022 if he doesn’t choose to retire instead.