This has been some finish to the 2012 baseball season — this chase to post-season — to see who would get to the Fall Classic, the World Series.
Commissioner Bud Selig devised the plan to expand the wild-card slots for postseason, wanting baseball to retake the month of September from the NFL. His plan to add a second wild-card team in both the American and National leagues was like hitting the slot machine jackpot in a casino. It was gold.
The summer of 2012 saw the rebirth of the once proud Baltimore Orioles and the emergence of the Oakland Athletics low-budget moneyball team.
It saw the crash of the Boston Red Sox, the implosion of the big money Miami Marlins, the discouraging 100-loss season of the Cubs and the gruesome 107-loss campaign in Houston.
The summer brought us the re-emergence of hope at Dodger Stadium and the slow-start fast-finish, but disappointment with the Angels. Washington grew as a baseball town and the Phillies failed to remain a power.
Heading to the final weekend of the season, the first week of October, Selig’s grand plan worked out well. On the final weekend of the campaign, five teams were fighting for first place in their respective divisions and five more were in the hunt for the wild-card slots, and the chance to play the “one and done” play-in game to see if you could go on in the playoffs.
It was great theater. It was tension. It was spectacular plays and heartbreaking sequences.
GIANTS: San Francisco’s best pitcher became their worst and their best hitter turned out to be tainted and yet Bruce Bochy got his team to within one game of going to the World Series. That, despite the regression of pitcher Tim Lincecum’s (10-16) season, and the drug-related 50-game suspension of Melky Cabrera (.356). The Giants were so enraged with Cabrera for testing positive for PEDs, they refused to put him back on the roster for the postseason, despite being eligible. It took a rousing speech from outfielder Hunter Pence when they were down 2-0 in their opening best-of-three series to trigger the Giants comeback. Unlikely hero Barry Zito, the $120 million free agent bust, saved their bacon with a quality start.
BRAVES: A team deep in pitching with big young hitting — you would have thought they would be a candidate to go deep into October. But forced to go the wild-card play-in route, they were eliminated by three errors from a usually reliable defense and a horrible blown infield fly call by an umpire down the left field line that snuffed out a bases-loaded rally. They exited truly ‘one and done’.
REDS: Cincinnati looked built to go the distance with depth in pitching, an awesome bullpen and some mid-lineup power hitting. But, they lost an edge when Dusty Baker was hospitalized the last week of the season with a mini-stroke, and had their resolve tested when ace pitcher Johnny Cueto went down with a back injury in the first inning of the first playoff game. The Reds then had to sit and watch ex-Padres pitcher Mat Latos meltdown on the mound, feuding with umpires over balls and strikes, then letting six straight runners get on base and giving up a grand slam homer. Season over.
ATHLETICS: It is a marvelous story of small budgets, no-name players, little fan support, but great heart. The A’s wound up going with a five-man rookie starting rotation and got to the postseason. They had a patchwork offense of a few young players and some plug-in veterans. They love each other and love playing the game in throwback fashion, even if fans don’t love them. The final Friday night of the season, they drew just 16,000 for a critical home game. But in the postseason, everyone was buying and wearing those gold jerseys and green hats, cheering and swearing on the A’s.
NATIONALS: Washington’s marvelous season grew cloudy with the decision to shutdown first-round draft pick Stephen Strasburg after 16 innings of work during the regular season — a precautionary move after major elbow surgery 18 months ago. Though led by 21-game winner Gio Gonzalez, the Nats’ rotation grew weaker without the ex-San Diego State Aztec Strasburg. It all collapsed when they lost a 6-0 lead in their playoff game and exited with little fight.
ORIOLES: It was work of art by Manager Buck Showalter to drag a young pitching staff and a beat-up batting order into postseason. But without power hitter Nick Markakis and a starting rotation running on fumes, the good season ended with a whimper in postseason. Baltimore had to tangle with the hated Yankees-Tampa Bay and Boston in five series in September and had no gas turning to October.
TEXAS: They spent a lot of money, created a lot of buzz, then let it all get away. They fell out of first place on the final night of the season, then got taken out in the play-in game. Slugging center Josh Hamilton dropped a routine fly ball opening the floodgates, and before you could blink, Manager Ron Washington’s team was gone.
YANKEES: The New York $190 million payroll bankrupted the team’s chances. Every one of their big hitting stars choked in a miserable display of failure. Controversial Alex Rodriguez was benched for four straight games, pinch hit for three times, was caught texting a woman from the clubhouse and went (3-for-23). Soon to be free agent Robby Cano disappeared in a (1-for-30) plunge at home plate. Ditto for Curtis Granderson (3-for-29) and Nick Swisher (4-for-26). The heroics of pitchers CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte were not enough.
TIGERS: They sprinted to the finish line, winning the American League Central race, making up a five-game deficit blowing by the White Sox. Then, strong-armed pitching ace Justin Verlander and the staff put together a 1.08 postseason ERA in getting to the Fall Classic, led by Triple Crown slugger Miguel Cabrera. They hit enough to overcome the fact they don’t field well, but that pitching staff is something.
CARDINALS: It’s why you play the games — to see who wins. On paper, who could have expected any of this from these people? St. Louis lost its manager Tony LaRussa and his trusted pitching coach Dave Duncan to retirement. Albert Pujols left middle America to take Disneyland money ($240 million) from the Angels. Pitching ace Chris Carpenter went down with shoulder-nerve surgery in the spring. Adam Wainwright, their second ace, was coming off surgery in the spring. And twice they lost their third best pitcher Jaime Garcia with elbow and shoulder woes that finally led to surgery in late season. And St. Louis, nonetheless, was playing this weekend for a chance to go the Series. Amazing resiliency.
So the stage is set for the World Series. The American League has to be favored. Detroit will have had five days rest and a chance to reset their rotation for Wednesday’s opener. ‘The National League has been a dogfight and both the Cardinals’ and Giants’ pitching staffs have gas tanks running on near-empty.
Bud Selig’s grand plan to make the end of the season exciting worked. The postseason has been even better. Stadiums are full, games are going to the last pitch, last out and there’s so much off-the-field theatrics, you couldn’t write a better script than this. The fans have gotten their money’s worth and the Fall Classic has not even started yet.