Wildcard teams were the big winners in the just concluded League Division series that left the best regular season teams (and their fans) asking “What just happened?” More after the jump.
In 2021, the 106 win Dodgers finished second in their division and were thus forced into a one game playoff against a Cardinals team that had won only 90 games. Los Angeles won that game and the following LDS against the Giants team that had beaten the Dodgers for first place in the NL West.
However, the seeming injustice of putting a team as dominant as those Dodgers into an immediate one-or-done matchup prompted MLB to expand the wildcard qualifiers to three per league, and to extend the wildcard round from a single game to a best-of-three series. That move made for more exciting Septembers with far more teams in the hunt for a post-season berth. But, I doubt that MLB expected the post-season impact that we’ve seen in the first two seasons of the expanded playoff format.
Last season, two wildcard qualifiers were matched in the NLCS while the 110 win Dodgers watched at home. Ditto for this season, as division winners lost all four division series for just the third time since 2005. Three of those losing teams won 100+ regular season games, just the second time that’s happened in the division era (the first was in 2002, when the Angels beat the Giants in the first all-wildcard World Series).
A rematch of last season’s NLDS produced the same result, with Philadelphia again prevailing in four games. The Phillies were in control throughout, trailing after only two innings in the entire series. In game one, Atlanta was shut out at home for the first time all season, a scoreless streak that extended through the first five innings of game 2, before the Braves mounted a comeback from 4-0 down for their lone victory. In the two games in Philadelphia, the Phillies out-homered the visitors by a count of 9 to 1, including a post-season record-tying half-dozen in game 3. Nick Castellanos led the home side with a pair of dingers in each game, the first such back-to-back in post-season history.
For the second straight season, a 100 win Dodger squad faced off against a division opponent that had finished a distant second. Last year, it was the Dodger bullpen that succumbed to a relentless Padre attack. This time, LA’s badly depleted starting staff was no match for D-Back bats, pitching less than 5 innings over 3 games and surrendering 13 of Arizona’s 19 runs. Three starters each allowing 3+ runs in less than 3 IP is a record for a division series of any length, and marks just the second time any team has started any post-season series that way (Quiz: which was the first team to do this? Hint: they won the series).
Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman, who together accounted for almost half of the Dodger team batting WAR for the season, were held to a combined 1 for 21 for the series, as LA bats fell silent, homering just once in the series, after launching 50% more homers (249 to 166) than Arizona in the regular season. The D-Backs clubbed 9 round-trippers in the series, its high-water mark for the season, having never exceeded 7 homers in any 3-game span in the regular campaign (in comparison, LA homered once or not at all in only 9 of 160 possible 3-game spans, with only two of those 9 spans against one opponent).
Minnesota entered this series with a very large monkey off its back, having broken its record 18-game post-season losing streak in dispatching Toronto in the wildcard round. The sweep of the Blue Jays followed a hot September (18-9 record) so, after splitting the first two games in Houston, Minnesota had some confidence of upsetting the defending champs, heading home to Target Field where the Twins had posted a 47-34 record for the season. The Astros, however, had an even better away record at 51-30, and it was they who held true to form, holding the home side to just three runs over two games to claim the series in 4 games.
In game 1, the Twins closed a 5-run deficit with a 7th inning four-spot on back-to-back blasts off of Astro reliever Hector Nerris, but Houston immediately responded on Yordan Alvarez‘s second HR to seal the game for the Astros. In game 3, Cristian Javier flummoxed the Twins, allowing just one hit in 5 shutout innings. It was Javier’s third post-season start and third time posting those same totals, thereby extending his own record streak of such starts to begin a post-season career. In game 4, Edouard Julien‘s 6th inning blast pulled the Twins to within one, but that would be their last hit of the game, as Astro relievers retired the last ten Twin batters, fanning eight. Aside from the four runs surrendered by Nerris in game 1, Astro relievers allowed only 2 runs and 5 hits for the series, while striking out 24 over 14⅓ IP. Yordan Alvarez became the sixth player to homer in each of the first three games of a division series (Quiz: which of those players extended that streak to a fourth game?)
After sweeping the Rays in the wildcard round, Texas dispatched the O’s with the same efficiency. The first game was the only close contest, as the Rangers overcame 16 strikeouts (tying the post-season record for a winning team in a 9-inning game) to edge the home side 3-2. In game two, Matt Garver‘s 3rd inning grand slam opened up a 9-2 lead, powering Texas to an 11-8 victory, despite being outhit and outslugged. Instead, the Rangers outwalked their opponent, accepting 11 free passes by Oriole pitchers, including a post-season record 5 BB for Corey Seager. The Rangers followed the same script in the clinching game, with a 5-run rising in the 2nd inning to cruise to a 7-1 victory. Two Oriole starters each going less than 2 IP while allowing 5+ runs sets a new division series record, and ties the record for any series.
The NLCS pits the defending NL champion Phillies against the Diamondbacks, making their first NLCS appearance since 2007. The Astros defend their AL title against the Rangers, making their first ALCS appearance since back-to-back pennant-winning seasons in 2010 and 2011. This series also matches veteran managers Dusty Baker and Bruce Bochy, each of whom has over 2000 regular season victories to his credit (Quiz: which other post-season series matched skippers who then boasted the same credentials?)