Why you shouldn't forget about baseball this fall
Sunday marked the first official day of fall: the season of leaf piles, pumpkin spice and — of course — football. Many people probably spent the day the same way, with a little bit of time spent on work and a lot more time spent on football. Add a flannel shirt and a pot of chili and there’s nothing better, right?
I will readily identify myself as a football fan — though my poor Steelers have given me little to cheer about so far — but at the end of September, baseball is always at the forefront of my mind. One could argue that it is no longer America’s pastime, but before we all get completely wrapped up in football, we should pay attention to the end of the MLB season. Fall baseball pits the best against the best, and it is just as dramatic and exciting as anything you’ll ever see on the gridiron. We’ve already been treated to a thrilling regular season, and the next few weeks will only get better.
Last week, four of the six titles were decided as the Boston Red Sox, Oakland Athletics, Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers clinched their respective divisions. The St. Louis Cardinals, Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds are all guaranteed playoff spots, and the Detroit Tigers will likely clinch the American League Central soon. That leaves only the final two AL Wild Card spots up for grabs. It may seem that most of the excitement is over, but a closer look at the teams and their respective situations reveals that, really, it has only just begun.
At the beginning of the month, the Texas Rangers were sitting pretty on top of the AL West, but a 6-15 record in September leaves them battling for a Wild Card spot and in serious danger of repeating last year’s monumental collapse. Meanwhile, the top two contenders for the Wild Card are teams that no one saw coming — the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cleveland Indians — and behind them, the Kansas City Royals and New York Yankees are still fighting for their last breath. Though Rays fans are apparently allergic to Tropicana Field and will not show up to watch, the AL Wild Card race will come down to the wire.
The American League division winners are very nearly set in stone and will make for a considerable obstacle, should an underdog Wild Card team make it through to the Divisional Series. The Detroit Tigers have yet to clinch, but boast the likes of MVP-frontrunner Miguel Cabrera and Max Scherzer, and have established themselves as perennial contenders. However, the TIgers have been ultimately unable to deliver in the playoffs, losing in the 2011 American League Championship Series and getting swept in the 2012 World Series.
Meanwhile, after a dismal 69-93 record last year, the Boston Red Sox will look to complete the worst-to-first turnaround, while Yankees fans everywhere will root for anyone who can stop them. Finally, the Oakland Athletics have built one of their strongest teams in years and enter the postseason on a hot streak. The American League postseason will be something of a battle between giants, with each team out for blood.
The National League Central has almost certainly been the toughest and most exciting division to watch this season — and that’s not just because I’m a Cardinals fan. After a grueling season wrestling for power with rivals Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, St. Louis leads the division by two games with a magic number of four to clinch the title.
Meanwhile, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati will end the season with a three-game showdown at the Great American Ballpark that could set the tone for the NL Wild Card game. Despite a furious comeback bid from the Nationals this month, both Wild Card spots will go to the Central division. The only question remaining is who will take the division pennant and which teams will match up in the Wild Card game with all of their postseason hopes on the line.
The Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers both easily triumphed over weak divisions in their respective roads to the playoffs, but neither team can take its position for granted. The Braves boasted one of the best records in baseball for much of the season and never encountered a real threat to the division crown, and of course they also had that 14-game Waffle House win streak earlier this summer. To be fair, most of those games were won at home. Away from Turner Field, Atlanta is 40-41 and are still playing for the home-field advantage they so desperately desire this postseason.
Meanwhile on the West Coast, the Dodgers have used the highest payroll in MLB history to craft a team that was touted early on as World Series contenders. Though they sat in last place in the division for the first half of the season, they stormed through the second half and took the NL West crown behind Cy Young candidate Clayton Kershaw and rookie phenom Yasiel Puig. Los Angeles looks nearly unbeatable now, but history has proven that baseball is a crazy sport — especially in October — and even the unlikeliest of Wild Card teams can topple Goliath and win it all.
You don’t have to look hard to find proof that fall baseball is a wild ride. The past decade alone has given us the underdog Marlins’ 2003 World Series win against the Yankees and the 2012 Giants, who, with their backs against the wall, won three consecutive games in two separate series en route to their title. Then there are my personal favorites, the 2011 comeback Cardinals and — okay, fine — the 2004 curse-breaking Red Sox. The tension and excitement of the postseason is contagious, whether your team is still alive or was finished from the start — sorry, Houston.
Anything can happen in October, and it’s up to us, the audience, to pay attention.