No need for an asterisk.
Defying all skepticism that this was nothing more than a watered-down money grab with little chance of reaching the finish line (yep, I’m raising my hand), Major League Baseball has pulled off its two-month sprint of a regular season amid the coronavirus pandemic.
With the playoffs set to begin next week, the 60-game campaign of 2020 certainly deserves a place right alongside those 162-game, six-month-long marathons of past years.
“They’re probably feeling like they would if they had played 162 games, really, with the mental drain and everything else that was on ’em,” said Atlanta Braves manager Brian Snitker, who guided his team to a third straight NL East title.
In many ways, this season was even more demanding than the usual grind.
With the most extensive travel of any major sport that’s being played during the pandemic, the odds were stacked against baseball from that very first pitch back in late July.
“Oh man, it was a challenge every day — for everybody, not just us,” Snitker said. “The obstacles we overcame, the hurdles we had to jump over, it was something else.”
Several notable players opted out before the season even began. Atlanta slugger Freddie Freeman was stricken with COVID-19 during summer camp and became so ill that he prayed just to make it through the night.
The Miami Marlins and the St. Louis Cardinals had widespread outbreaks in the opening weeks, forcing the postponement of numerous games. There was talk of Commissioner Rob Manfred threatening to shut down the season if more teams were affected.
In the end, it somehow worked out better than anyone could’ve expected.
Check out the Marlins, who made the playoffs for the first time since 2003 despite being forced to make nearly 200 roster moves. How ’bout those Toronto Blue Jays, back in the postseason despite having to play their home games at a minor-league park in Buffalo because of Canada’s virus-related travel restrictions.
“It has been difficult,” Miami manager Don Mattingly said. “You’ve seen guys in the locker room you’ve never seen before, some guys you’ve never even heard about before.”
Even with a much shorter schedule, most of baseball’s cream has risen to the top. There are certainly some surprises, such as the San Diego Padres claiming their first postseason berth since 2006 and the reigning World Series champion Washington Nationals slumping to last place. But it’s worth noting that of the 10 playoff teams from 2019, only the Nats had been eliminated going into the final weekend.
Also, let’s give props to the new rules, which were viewed by traditionalists (again, raising my hand) as just a gimmicky way to beef up interest.
Turns out, the game was not ruined by both leagues using the designated hitter. It actually made things much more interesting to have legitimate hitters manning every spot in the batting order, rather than enduring the helpless swings of a pitcher.
The Braves, for instance, were able use outfielder Marcell Ozuna in the DH role from time to time, ensuring his powerful bat was at the plate in every game.
Boy, did their lineup flourish.
“A lot of us like the National League rules, but it worked out well for us this year,” said Freeman, who bounced back from his illness to have a monster season worthy of MVP consideration. “It was huge for us to have him be in that lineup every single night.”
We’ve also got no complaints about doubleheader games being only seven innings long, or extra innings starting with a baserunner being placed at second base.
Both changes presented a whole new set of strategic opportunities, and MLB should consider making them permanent going forward.
The shorter games forced managers into a heightened sense of urgency through what had been the lull of the middle innings. The extra-inning baserunner gave visiting teams the option of playing for a single run with a bunt or swinging away in hopes of blowing the game open.
It was all rather entertaining, though we’d like to make one suggestion: Play the 10th under normal rules before putting a baserunner at second to start the 11th if the game is still tied.
The expanded playoffs — 16 of 30 teams will make it this year — are also worth considering for a 2021 season that we all hope will signal a return of at least some degree of normalcy.
Granted, 16 playoff teams is too many, but an expansion from 10 to 12 should certainly be on the table. That way, the two division winners in each league would get a first-round bye, while the remaining division winner and best second-place team from each league could host an entire best-of-three series against a pair of wild-card teams.
We’re particularly intrigued with the all-games-in-one-city format of the wild-card round, which will be used next week in empty stadiums mainly as a way to cut down on travel that could potentially expose teams to the virus.
Let’s see how that works with fans in the stands and a real home-field advantage, which will hopefully be possible next year.
Baseball must remain diligent through the playoffs, which after the opening round will be played entirely at neutral sites to mimic the NBA and NHL bubbles that have been so successful at stifling the virus.
But the hard part, it would seem, is over.
“I’m proud of how they handed this whole situation, the whole two months,” Snitker said, speaking for his own team though he could’ve been referring to everyone. “They followed the protocols from the get-go, which was hard to do. We got through the whole thing, and now we get rewarded for it.”
Bring on the playoffs.
You’ve earned it, baseball.
Paul Newberry is a sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or at https://twitter.com/pnewberry1963. His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/paulnewberry
AP Sports Writer Steven Wine in Miami contributed to this report.
More AP MLB: https://apnews.com/MLB and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
Copyright © 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.