If you look at baseball from the rosy, plastic view of Ken Burns or producers those ridiculous aggrandizing odes to the game as if it is some sort of complex metaphor for life on the Upper East Side, the final day of the Major League Baseball season is nothing to get worked up over. No, that’s stuff is saved for Opening Day where they blather on wide-eyed and sappy-like as if they just walked out of the cornfield in Field of Dreams.
Look, that romanticizing about baseball is fine and it sells a lot of books, but for the hardcore baseball fan there is nothing like Game 162.
Opening Day is for renewal and hope and promise. It’s when everyone starts fresh and there are no limits on success. But rarely is Opening Day memorable or the purveyor of significant, meaningful action. It’s the first one of 162 and there will be another game in the days to follow.
Oh, but Game 162 is about blood and guts. It’s where heroes, goats and legends are made and where legacies are cast in concrete. Game 162 is about the pros even if the team is just playing out the string. There is a real dignity in seeing the race all the way to the end even if it was lost long before the trading deadline. A baseball season truly is like a marathon the ballplayers liken it to, and that being the case, Game 162 is like running the last 385 yards of the marathon. Anyone can do the first 26 miles, but it’s that last stretch that separates the champs from the chumps.
So with Sunday’s slate of Game 162s that last sprint for a bunch of teams, the final day of the season is shaping up to be one of the oddest in recent memory in the National League. Yes, the Phillies are in and will have home-field advantage the entire length of the postseason, but rarely is there an opportunity for the top-seeded team to also be the spoiler.
In fact, the Phillies have played that spoiler role perfectly during the first two games of the series in Atlanta where they have helped monkey wrench the entire season for the Braves, Padres and Giants simply by winning games. At 97-64 (the best record in the majors), the Phils sent Kyle Kendrick and Vance Worley to the mound against the Braves and walked away with lopsided victories. The strange part is that the Braves needed to win just one game to sew up the wild-card berth in the playoffs while the Padres would have to settle on sweeping away the Giants—in San Francisco—to force a one-game playoff on Monday.
But the Phillies’ victories and the Padres’ refusal to go away in San Francisco leaves the scenarios like this:
- Wins by the Phillies and Giants: The Giants get the NL West and the Padres and Braves tie for the wild card. The tie-breaker game would be played on Monday in Atlanta. If the Padres win, they get to fly to Philadelphia for Game 1 of the NLDS on Wednesday. If the Braves win, Cincinnati heads to Philly for the NLDS and the Braves go to San Francisco.
- Wins by the Phillies and Padres: The Braves are done and the Giants and Padres finish tied for the NL West. Based on the tie-breaker, the Padres become the NL West champs because they had a better record head-to-head against the Giants. It also means the Giants face the Phillies in the NLDS.
- Wins by the Braves and Giants: The Padres are done. The Giants win the NL West and the Braves get the wild card. The playoff matchups from this scenario are Reds vs. Phillies and Braves vs. Giants.
- Wins by the Braves and Padres: This is the oddest of all the circumstances. It means the Padres and Giants leave San Francisco to play one game in San Diego on Monday. The winner is champion of the NL West and the loser of that game jets to Atlanta for a one-game playoff on Tuesday to determine the wild-card winner.
If it were to come to this, and the Giants or Padres escaped with a win in Atlanta, they could play four games in four consecutive days in four different cities in two time zones.
The question that must be asked is if Game 162 ever presented so many different scenarios in baseball history and the knee-jerk answer has to be, no. The fates of five teams all come down to two games played on the very last day of the season and even then there’s a chance the picture will become even more muddied. However, before the advent of divisional play and the league championship series, the 1967 season came down to the very last day of the season where three teams—the Red Sox, Twins and Tigers—were separated by one game. And just to make it even more crowded, the White Sox came in fourth place just three games behind the Red Sox.
The final day of the 1967 saw the Red Sox beat the Twins to take a one-game lead while the Angels beat the Tigers in the second game of a doubleheader to give Boston the pennant. Game 162 of 1967 was most notable for the Tigers and Angels playing two doubleheaders on the last two days of the season, as well as Carl Yastrzemski’s 4-for-4 to cap off a 7-for-8 with six RBIs and a homer in the last two games to boost him to the Triple Crown.
Aside from the 1967 pennant race, the Padres’ run against the Giants most resembles the Orioles’ frantic comeback in the last four games of the 1982 season against the Brewers. Leading the AL East by three games with four to play, Milwaukee needed to win one game to sew it up and go to the playoffs for the first time. But in the opener, the Orioles won with Dennis and Tippy Martinez on the mound. Then the Orioles swept a Saturday doubleheader by a combined score of 18-4 to make the last game of the year a do-or-die situation.
Considering that the Orioles trailed the Brewers by four games with five to play, by seven games in late August and by 10 games in May, one had to wonder if the Orioles were surging or the Brewers were choking.
That was all settled on a sun-soaked Sunday afternoon at Memorial Stadium on 33rd Street where future Hall-of-Famers Jim Palmer and Don Sutton took the mound with future Hall-of-Famers Cal Ripken Jr. and Robin Yount at shortstop.
But what any self-respecting Milwaukeean will tell you that it wasn’t so much Sutton’s solid eight-innings or Yount’s two homers and a triple (well, maybe it was Yount… he was pretty spectacular that day) as it was Ben Oglivie’s sliding catch on the gravel warning track in left field to end the eighth inning and ruin the Orioles’ last rally that could have tied the game.
Instead, the Brewers hung on in Game 162, rallied from a 2-0 deficit against the Angels in the ALCS and went to Game 7 of the World Series against the Cardinals in a season that was pushed to the limits. Better yet, it was because of Game 162 that Yaz, Sutton, Yount and even Ben Oglivie are discussed with reverence saved for TV documentaries so many years later.
You can have Opening Day, we’ll take Game 162. That’s baseball.
“Somebody's going down,” Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said about the odd final day of the season facing the National League. “There’s three teams in there. Somebody’s going down, man.”
Very true. But somebody is going up, too.