April 17, 2024

Chaos? Not quite. Just a couple of days ago, it looked like we would have a wild final day of the MLB season. Even heading into Saturday, we still had the possibility of a three-team tie in the American League West — with the Toronto Blue Jays potentially matching the AL West teams at 89 wins. But then we set a record for most playoff spots clinched in a 90-minute span. In rapid-fire fashion, the Miami Marlins clinched a wild card when they beat the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Texas Rangers clinched with a win over the Seattle Mariners, the Blue Jays clinched when the Mariners lost, the Arizona Diamondbacks clinched with their game in progress when the Cincinnati Reds lost, and then the Houston Astros clinched when they beat the Diamondbacks.

Whew.

So all 12 2023 MLB playoff teams are now set — but there are still a couple of things to decide. Here’s what to watch on Sunday in the playoff races and elsewhere.

Who will win the American League West?

The Rangers beat the Mariners 6-1 as they handed Luis Castillo his shortest outing of the season; the Astros beat the Diamondbacks 1-0 behind Justin Verlander‘s five scoreless innings to clinch their seventh straight postseason berth. The Rangers, in the postseason for the first time since 2016, maintain a one-game lead over the Astros, but the Astros won the season series — so if Houston wins and Texas loses, the Astros take the title and the No. 2 seed.

The Rangers are likely to go with a bullpen game of sorts, as they did five days ago. They haven’t announced their starter yet — Cody Bradford started that game but pitched in relief on Saturday. They could go with Martin Perez, but he last started on July 29, before his banishment to the bullpen; they also could conceivably go with Dane Dunning on three days of rest after he threw 87 pitches in seven scoreless innings against the Angels on Wednesday. The Astros will have Cristian Javier going on regular rest.

Both teams will be all-in to try to avoid the unpredictability of a three-game series, so I doubt either team partied too late into Saturday night. Remember, just last season three of the four road teams won their wild-card series. Getting a few extra days of rest for your bullpen and lining up your rotation for the division series is a strong incentive for both squads today.

How will the seeding shake out in the American League?

The Rangers enter Sunday with 90 wins; the Astros and Blue Jays sit at 89. The AL West winner is determined first, so here are the scenarios:

1. All three teams finish with 90 wins. The Astros are division champs and the No. 2 seed. The Rangers won the season series over the Blue Jays (6 to 1) so they are the No. 5 seed and the Jays the No. 6 seed. This is arguably an advantage for Toronto, as the Jays would travel to Minnesota while the Rangers head to Tampa Bay.
2. The Rangers finish with 91 wins and the Astros and Blue Jays finish with 89. The Jays won the season series 4-3 over the Astros, so they would be the No. 5 seed and the Astros the No. 6 seed.
3. The Rangers and Astros finish with 90 wins and the Blue Jays with 89. The Astros are division champs, the Rangers are the fifth seed and the Jays the sixth seed.

Seattle’s loss that clinched a playoff spot for Toronto was a huge gift for the Blue Jays. With a playoff spot up in the air, they would have been forced to start ace Kevin Gausman (remember, all games on Sunday start at the same time), which meant he wouldn’t have been ready to start in the wild-card series. Now he won’t have to pitch and can get ready for Tuesday.

What about the National League wild-card seeding?

The first four seeds are set — Atlanta, Los Angeles, Milwaukee and Philadelphia. The Marlins are 84-76 and the Diamondbacks are 84-77. The Marlins have a suspended game against the Mets that they’re leading 2-1 in the ninth inning that might have to be finished on Monday at Citi Field. The scenarios for the fifth and sixth seeds:

1. The Marlins win and the Diamondbacks lose. The Marlins clinch the fifth seed and won’t have to finish the suspended game.
2. Both teams lose. The Marlins won the season series against Arizona, so this would also clinch the No. 5 seed for them.
3. The Diamondbacks win and the Marlins lose. The Marlins would have to complete the suspended game. If they win, they would be the fifth seed; if they blow the lead and lose, they drop to the sixth seed.

No matter what happens, it’s been quite a ride for the Marlins, who make the playoffs in a full season for the first time since 2003. They also made it after being under .500 through 133 games — the latest a team has been under .500 in a season and made the playoffs since the 2009 Twins.

Can Freddie Freeman hit his 60th double?

Freeman isn’t chasing a record, but he is chasing the most underrated achievement of 2023. There have been fewer seasons with 60 doubles than 60 home runs, and the six players who have done it are all in black-and-white photos. Joe Medwick and Charlie Gehringer were the last to do it, in 1936, when Medwick hit 64 and Gehringer hit 60. Todd Helton hit 59 for the Rockies in 2000 and Nick Castellanos came close in 2019, when he hit 58 for the Tigers and Cubs (and missed the final four games of the season).

This will be Freeman’s third time in four seasons leading the majors in doubles, and he has done it in dominating fashion, with 17 more than his closest competitor, Corey Seager. When Castellanos hit 58 in the lively ball season of 2019, for example, Rafael Devers and Xander Bogaerts also topped 50. Freeman’s 17-double lead over the No. 2 guy would be the second highest in major league history, behind only the season Earl Webb set the record with 67 and owned a 20-double advantage. Freeman’s doubles are testament to two things: (1) his pure hitting skill, since players who hit a lot of doubles are hitting line drives from foul line to foul line and that’s Freeman, similar to a left-handed version of Hall of Famer Edgar Martinez; (2) a guy who is busting it out of the batter’s box and taking that extra base.

Can the Braves hit three home runs?

That’s how many Atlanta needs to surpass the 2019 Twins’ single-season record of 307 home runs. The Braves have matched the Twins with five 30-homer sluggers, became the first team with four 35-homer players, and Matt Olson set the franchise record with 54 home runs. We’re not only watching the home runs, however. The Braves are also slugging .501 heading into the final game. If they have a good game, they’ll be the first team to ever slug .500 in a season. Put it this way: The entire team is hitting .275/.343/.500, which is a higher OPS than the career totals for Carl Yastrzemski, Robinson Cano, Eddie Murray, Jose Altuve, Roberto Clemente or Manny Machado, among others.

Join the club!

With stolen base totals way up and home runs still flying out of parks, it’s been invigorating to see the return of the power-speed player, reminding fans of the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s, when 30/30 seasons — and then 40/40 with Jose Canseco the first to achieve it — were symbolic goals for the all-around player. Ronald Acuna Jr., of course, has been the headliner, becoming the fifth member of the 40/40 club and the founding member of the 40/70 club.

Acuna, Julio Rodriguez, Francisco Lindor and Bobby Witt Jr. are already members of the 30/30 club in 2023, the first time four players have hit those marks since 2011. It’s the fourth time in history as many players have done it. But wait: Kyle Tucker is sitting on 29 home runs and stole his 30th base Saturday night, so he has a chance to become the fifth member. Witt is one stolen base away from 50, which would put him in a club that includes only Acuna, Eric Davis (1987) and Barry Bonds (1990). This year there have been 18 players who have reached 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases, just one short of the record set in 1999.

American League batting title up for grabs

There are only nine players hitting .300 this season — don’t act so surprised! — and only four qualified hitters in the American League. Since the wild-card era began in 1995, this will be the fewest number of .300 hitters. The previous low? Last season, when only 11 players did it. (Hey, hitting is hard.) Anyway, winning a batting title is still a nice line for a player’s résumé. Luis Arraez has had a comfortable margin all season in the NL, but the AL comes down to the final day with Corey Seager of the Rangers hitting .330 and Yandy Diaz of the Rays hitting … .330. Diaz missed a bunch of games this past week with a hamstring issue, returned on Friday and pinch hit on Saturday, so we’ll see if he’s in the lineup. Seager was at .344 on Sept. 15, but hit .222 over 14 games heading into Saturday.

Saying goodbye to …

It will be the final game for at least a couple of legends, and maybe more than we think:

  • Miguel Cabrera hit his 511th career home run on Sept. 27 to tie Mel Ott for 25th on the all-time list. If he can go yard in the finale, he’ll match Ernie Banks and Eddie Mathews. He drove in his 1,881st run with a sac fly on Saturday and ranks 13th on that list.

  • Adam Wainwright made his final pitching appearance a couple of weeks ago and, after a miserable season that saw him post a 7.40 ERA, tossed seven scoreless innings to earn his 200th career victory. He’s done pitching, but he wanted to get a couple final at-bats — he has 10 career home runs — and has been taking batting practice. The Cardinals didn’t use him in Saturday’s blowout win, but now that the Reds have been officially eliminated, Sunday’s game is meaningless. No doubt he’ll get an at-bat in front of the home crowd.

  • Zack Greinke starts for the Royals today. Unlike Cabrera and Wainwright, he hasn’t made any official announcement on his retirement — not that anyone would expect one from him. He’s 1-15 with a 5.18 ERA for the Royals, although still a clear Hall of Famer in my book, and I think he could still help a team as a reliever as he was effective enough the first time through the batting order. Whether he wants to return — and whether a team would give him an opportunity — is unknown, but at least he’ll get a final start in Kansas City, where he began his career and won the Cy Young Award in 2009.

  • Joey Votto has also given no indication on his future. What we know is his contract is up — well, the Reds hold a $20 million team option or a $7 million buyout, so we feel pretty confident about which direction that will go. Votto still has some pop and draws some walks, so despite a low average (the past two seasons dropped him under .300 for his career), he still has been about a league-average hitter this season. You might envision a scenario where the Reds bring him back on a lower salary, except they have a bunch of young infielders who need to play. Votto is one of the game’s treasures, a master at getting on base (he led his league seven times in OBP), an MVP winner and a great ambassador for baseball. I’d love to see one more season.

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