After all this, no tiebreaker game? Not even a Game 162 for the Tigers on Monday? What happened to our five-way tie in the American League and three-way tie in the National League? What happened to our dreams of wild-card chaos?
Here's what happened: The Giants put the hammer down on the Dodgers, Aaron Sanchez put the hammer down on the Red Sox, and Zach Britton, as he has done all season, simply put the final hammer down. So our wild-card games will be Orioles at Blue Jays on Tuesday and Giants at Mets on Wednesday. Here's how we got there on Sunday:
1. Bruce Bochy's gambles pay off. In the final week of the season, the Giants' manager made three major decisions that paid off:
1. He moved Brandon Belt up to the No. 2 spot in the batting order. Of course, a logical question is why it took Bochy so long to make this move. Belt leads the team in OBP and OPS and the Giants have on-base issues at the top of the lineup, ranking 23rd in the majors in leadoff OBP and 27th in OBP from the No. 2 position. Belt hit second for the first time last Sunday. On Tuesday, he went 3-for-5 with two runs in a 12-3 win over the Rockies. On Friday, he went 3-for-3, with two runs and a two-run homer in a 9-3 win over the Dodgers. On Sunday, he went 2-for-4, including a first-inning double that helped ignite a two-run rally. Matt Moore took over from there and the Giants completed a sweep with the 7-1 victory.
2. He started Ty Blach on Saturday. In switching from Albert Suarez to Blach, who had made only one major league start, Bochy went with the numbers: The Dodgers have the worst OPS in the majors against left-handed pitching. Blach outdueled Clayton Kershaw with eight scoreless innings.
3. He lined up his rotation to not have Madison Bumgarner pitch on Sunday. Teams will plan out their rotations in early September, going day by day to the end of the regular season, making adjustments as needed because of injuries or other factors. While all the other wild-card contenders lined up their ace to pitch Sunday -- which is what happened with the Blue Jays (Aaron Sanchez), Orioles (Kevin Gausman), Tigers (Justin Verlander), Cardinals (Adam Wainwright), Mets (Noah Syndergaard would have started if they hadn't clinched Saturday) and Mariners (Felix Hernandez, although Seattle was eliminated Saturday night) -- the Giants instead had Bumgarner start Friday, which means he's ready to pitch in the wild-card game. The Giants were willing to take the risk of missing the postseason on the final day without Bumgarner pitching, knowing their chances of winning the wild-card game improve if he's starting. Yes, it's easier to consider the bigger picture when you've won three World Series titles in six years, but the Giants certainly took a different approach than the other teams.
As for making it four titles in seven years, don't overlook the Giants even though they've gone just 30-42 in the second half, they finished 27th in the majors in runs after the All-Star break, and their bullpen has had several memorable implosions the past few weeks. But note this as well: Only the Cubs and Red Sox have given up fewer runs in the second half.
Jake Peavy giving speech for Giants: "I know this season hasn't been what you thought it would be. That being said, we're in."— Alex Pavlovic (@AlexPavlovic) October 2, 2016
As Giants fans know, this is the path the club took in 2014, when Bumgarner went into Pittsburgh and blanked the Pirates in the wild-card game. Syndergaard will be a tough matchup, but Bumgarner is a good matchup against all the Mets' left-handed power (Curtis Granderson, Jay Bruce, Lucas Duda).
If they win that game, the biggest hurdle will be not having Bumgarner start again until Game 3 of the division series against the Cubs. That's what happened in 2014, however, and the Giants still beat the Nationals in four games, even while losing the Bumgarner game. The advantage this team has over the 2014 club is Johnny Cueto is better than any starter on that club. He has been pitching well down the stretch as well, with a 2.21 ERA over his past eight starts.
No, the Giants don't hit many home runs -- in this year of the home run, Belt led the team with 17 -- but they also have the lowest strikeout rate of any team in the postseason, a style of offense that worked for the Royals last year and the Giants in 2014. If they get past the Cubs and face the Dodgers, they are the one team that can load up with left-handed starters with Bumgarner and Matt Moore, and maybe even Blach if Bochy wants to get really bold. If you're worried about the team's 15-15 record in the final month, we point again to 2014: That team was just 13-12 in September.
It has been the year of the Cubs in the National League, but the Giants, as always, are lurking. As Jake Peavy said, the Giants are in. And we can't ignore them.
2. Aaron Sanchez flirts with a no-hitter. The Red Sox were playing their best lineup, so a tip of the cap to Sanchez, who lost his no-hit bid in the seventh inning on Hanley Ramirez's towering fly ball over the left-field foul pole that might not have been fair. He'd finish giving up two hits in seven innings and watched the Blue Jays push across the go-ahead run in the eighth. He also lowered his ERA to 3.00, inching past Justin Verlander (3.04) for the ERA title. The Jays are in the playoffs for consecutive seasons for the first time since 1991-93.
3. Hey, Buck Showalter decided to use Zach Britton. After not using Britton on Saturday in the eighth inning with the score tied, Showalter brought in Britton on Sunday -- with a lower-leverage 5-1 lead to protect and a runner on. Britton actually gave up two hits to allow the inherited runner to score but struck out two batters in the ninth to finish off the victory and clinch a trip to Toronto for the wild-card game. Britton finished with 47 saves in 47 opportunities and a 0.54 ERA -- the lowest ever for someone who pitched at least 50 innings:
Britton, 2016 Orioles: 0.54
Fernando Rodney, 2012 Rays: 0.60
Dennis Eckersley, 1990 A's: 0.61
Rob Murphy, 1986 Reds: 0.72
Zach Britton gets the final out in the bottom of the ninth vs. NYY, and the Orioles are in the playoffs. Big game from Kevin Gausman.— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) October 2, 2016
Britton certainly will get some first-place Cy Young votes. (Sanchez might as well, although it seems Rick Porcello, who went 22-4 with a 3.15 ERA, is the favorite.) Was it the best relief season ever? It has to be up there, although you can't really compare Britton and his 67 innings to say, 1984 AL MVP Willie Hernandez and his 140 innings. Among relievers with fewer than 100 innings, Britton's win probability added ranks third behind Troy Percival in 1996 and Eric Gagne's 2003 Cy Young season.
4. Tigers bats go silent at the wrong time. With their season on the line, the Tigers struck out 10 times against Aaron Blair (who entered with an 8.04 ERA) on Saturday, and 12 times against Julio Teheran on Sunday. Justin Verlander was terrific, giving up only a first-inning RBI single to Freddie Freeman, but Teheran dominated and Jim Johnson struck out J.D. Martinez and Justin Upton with a runner on to end it. In the end, Sunday's game didn't matter for the Tigers. Losing Saturday's game to Blair was the big defeat.
5. Vin Scully signs off for the final time. In a sense, this was the story of the year because it was really the story of a lifetime. Scully broadcast Dodgers games for 67 years. Think about this: In his first season, Connie Mack, who was born while the Civil War was still being fought, was in his final season managing the Philadelphia A's. With only those two men, you can cover nearly the entire history of baseball -- Mack began his career in 1886 with an early edition of the Washington Nationals. One of his teammates had one arm. I don't know if the two ever talked, but Scully apparently told a story earlier this season about once being in the same room as Mack.
Scully & Scully. pic.twitter.com/1Mh0LBDZQ3— Los Angeles Dodgers (@Dodgers) October 3, 2016
Enjoy retirement, Vin.