After almost a week without baseball, the World Series starts today! With all its storylines -- the Houston Astros' attempt to win a clean title, the Philadelphia Phillies' hot streak continuing -- it promises to be memorable.
And if it isn't? If we get a dud of a series or a sweep? It won't matter -- because this postseason already has been a stunning success, one of the best of all time. From Harper to Hoskins, from Hader to Bader, from 1-0 in 18 innings to a seven-run lead blown, from the Nola Brothers to Big Dumper, from multiple unforgettable home runs to an inside-the-parker by a catcher, the 2022 postseason has reminded us, as it does every year, that there is nothing better, nothing more unpredictable and more captivating than October baseball.
There were records broken and new stars made, and the introduction of an entirely new playoff format: six teams from each league, rather than four, and a three-game series for the eight wild-card teams. But it happened fast, and here we are in the final round -- with a reminder of all the best from the early series.
The wild-card round -- where upsets reigned
Predictably, the surprises began in the first game of the postseason when the Guardians beat the Rays 3-2 in a game that lasted ... 2 hours, 17 minutes, the fastest postseason game since 1999. But lightning-paced baseball wasn't the only unexpected event of the day. The Phillies, the 12th seed in the tournament, scored six runs in the ninth to beat the favored Cardinals. The Padres pounded ace Max Scherzer to beat the favored Mets. And the Mariners' Luis Castillo delivered the first of what would be many overpowering pitching performances in October. He was so dominant against the Blue Jays that one Mariner said, "We have to move the mound back a foot and a half. There's no time for hitters to react to this stuff.''
Day 2 provided the first classic game of the 2022 postseason. The Mariners, down 8-1 after five innings, roared back to beat the Blue Jays 10-9, sending them to the ALDS -- where the Astros waited. First, though, Seattle became the third team in postseason history, joining the 1929 A's and the 2008 Red Sox, to win a game that it trailed by seven runs. Three of the biggest hits were provided by Mariners catcher Cal Raleigh, already a folk hero in Seattle when he became the first player in history to hit a pinch-hit, walk-off home run to clinch a playoff berth, Seattle's first in 21 years. His nickname is Big Dumper because he hits bombs, and, well -- as one teammate said, "His butt is as big as a trailer.''
"Sounds about right,'' Raleigh said, laughing. "More people now call me Big Dumper than Cal.''
The Phillies and Guardians advanced on Day 2, as well, and then the wild-card round, emphasis on wild, ended with the Padres beating the Mets 6-0 in the round's only Game 3 (and making the Mets just the first of three 100-win teams in the regular season to be dispatched so far this October). San Diego's Joe Musgrove became the first pitcher ever to throw seven scoreless innings and allow only one hit in a winner-take-all game. He told his teammates before the game that he was going to throw the best game of his life, and then he did, despite the Mets having the umpires check his ears during the game for sticky stuff.
Nothing was found, and in fact, Musgrove said of the check: "It just made me better."
The division series -- where giants fell
Right from the jump, the division series gave us another unforgettable moment: The Astros were down two runs with two out in the ninth inning against the Mariners when Yordan Alvarez hit a three-run, walk-off homer off Robbie Ray for a 7-6 victory. Alvarez joined Joe Carter (1993), Kirk Gibson (1988) and Lenny Dykstra (1986) as the only players to hit a walk-off homer in a postseason game when their teams were trailing.
"Yordan reminds me of Willie McCovey,'' Astros manager Dusty Baker said.
The Phillies played their first home playoff game since 2011, and the wonderfully frenzied fans at Citizens Bank Park were indescribably loud. "I've never seen a crowd that was standing and cheering from the first pitch to the last,'' Phillies manager Rob Thomson said. "It was unbelievable.'' Phillies first baseman Rhys Hoskins, who was booed during the introductions in part because of a poor defensive play he had made in a loss two days earlier in Atlanta, drilled a three-run homer in the third inning off Spencer Strider, sparking a 9-1 victory. Hoskins gleefully slammed the bat to the ground as he ran to first.
"I didn't even know I did that, I blacked out,'' he said. "I saw it the next day. I don't remember it.''
The next day was Saturday, Oct. 15 -- and it's no exaggeration to call it one of the greatest days in baseball history.
- The Mariners played their first home playoff game since 2001 -- reason to celebrate, even though they lost to Houston 1-0 in 18 innings. It tied for the most innings ever played in a postseason game, and it was the first one ever to go scoreless through 15 innings. It lasted 6 hours, 22 minutes, and it included a postseason-record 42 strikeouts, 22 by Seattle, 20 by Houston. Seattle pitcher George Kirby, who had finished the clinching game of the wild-card series against Toronto with his first career save, became the first rookie to throw seven scoreless innings in his first career postseason start with his team facing elimination. It was finally decided on a home run by one of the emerging stars in October, rookie shortstop Jeremy Pena, who had been 0-for-7. "Man, that was something,'' Baker said. "I've never seen anything like that.''
- The Guardians scored three runs in the bottom of the ninth inning to beat the Yankees, who had never lost a postseason game that they led by multiple runs entering the ninth. But at least for the Yankees, the legend of Harrison Bader, the Bronxville Bomber, continued to grow with yet another home run, his fourth in six games. Sure, others have matched that in the postseason -- but never someone who had hit only five homers all season.
- The Phillies eliminated the Braves with an 8-3 win. Not only were the Braves the second 100-win team to be eliminated, their loss also ensured that the 1998-2000 Yankees would remain the most recent repeat world champions. The game included an inside-the-park homer by the Phillies' J.T. Realmuto, the first catcher to do so in a postseason game. There have been three inside-the-park homers in the postseason in the last 93 years: Paul Molitor in 1982, Alcides Escobar in 2015 and Realmuto (I covered all three games). With the win, the Phillies became the first team since the 2008 Dodgers to advance to the league championship series with as few as 87 wins.
- The Padres, playing before a home crowd as raucous as any, eliminated the Dodgers, who had won 111 games: The last team to win that many games and not win a postseason series was the 1954 Indians. The Padres, down 3-0 in the seventh inning, scored five times to win -- they had lost their last 91 games down three-plus runs entering the seventh inning, and the Dodgers had won their last 153 games ahead by three-plus runs entering the seventh. The Padres had been demolished head-to-head by the Dodgers during the regular season, winning 22 fewer games overall. San Diego became the first team to defeat a team in a playoff series with such a large win differential since the 1906 World Series, when the White Sox beat the Cubs, who had won 23 more games during the season.
The championship series -- where legends were made
The Padres, with 89 wins, and the Phillies, with 87, met in the National League Championship Series, the first time an LCS had included two teams with fewer than 90 wins. The Phillies won Game 1, but the Padres won Game 2 in part because of a five-run fifth inning sparked by a hit-and-run single by Padres catcher Austin Nola off his younger brother, Aaron. It marked the first time in postseason history that brother faced brother in a batter-pitcher matchup. Their parents went to all the games, naturally, but they were conflicted about which son to root for.
"I didn't get much a chance to watch them during the games,'' Aaron Nola said. "But I was told my dad paced a lot and my mom was really quiet ... but the whole thing was so cool.''
Game 2 was closed by the Padres' Josh Hader, who, in this postseason, became the first pitcher to ever strike out eight batters in a row, and the first pitcher ever to strike out the side (three batters faced, all strikeouts) in consecutive appearances. And yet he didn't pitch in the three games, all losses, in Philadelphia. In Game 4, the Phillies became the third team ever to win a postseason game in which it gave up four runs in the top of the first inning, and the second team ever to win a postseason game in which it trailed by four runs, tied the score, then came back from another multi-run deficit to win the game.
Game 5 was another masterpiece. Hoskins hit another homer, his third in his past six at-bats. The game was decided and the pennant was won when Bryce Harper hit a two-run homer off Robert Suarez in the eighth, turning a 3-2 deficit into a 4-3 lead, which Ranger Suarez protected with a two-pitch, two-out save. It was the biggest moment and biggest home run of Harper's career, it was one of the greatest moments in the history of the Phillies and it was precisely why the Phillies gave him a 13-year, $330 million contract. It was a moment that seemingly was built specifically for Harper when he was a 15-year-old phenom. We all knew that moment would come, and we knew he would deliver. We just thought it would come at age 25, not 30 -- and that it would come for the Nationals, not the Phillies.
"We all knew Bryce would do that,'' Hoskins said. "It was no surprise to us.''
Maybe we should have known that the Astros would roll the Yankees in four games; it was, after all, the fourth time the Astros have eliminated the Yankees from postseason play, which is a first. In the series, the Astros' Jose Altuve ended the longest hitless streak (0-for-23) ever to start a postseason, and ageless ace Justin Verlander struck out 11 in a six-inning gem that gave him more career strikeouts than any pitcher in postseason history. The Astros and their ridiculously good pitching staff held the Yankees to a .162 average with 50 strikeouts. Aaron Judge, a free agent after the season, represented the final hope for the Yankees in Game 4, down one run with two outs in the ninth inning, but he grounded back to the pitcher in what might have been his final at-bat as a Yankee.
"This is cruel,'' Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. "This stings.''
The World Series -- where a champion will be crowned
During the postseason, we said goodbye to retired Cardinals icons Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina, but we said hello to Pena and Phillies shortstop Bryson Stott, who will become the first rookie shortstops to start in the same World Series. Pena won the ALCS MVP against the Yankees -- his three-run homer in the fourth inning turned Game 4.
"He's the only Dominican dude,'' Baker said, smiling, "to go to the University of Maine.''
Stott is a terrific defender, gets big hits and has a sense of humor. Asked about the Phillies being on the road for 17 straight days during the end of the regular season and the start of the postseason, Stott said, "I took every shirt I own, every pair of underwear, on the trip. When I got home, I had nothing. All the clothes I own in my life I took on that trip.''
The world was also introduced to Phillies manager Rob Thomson, 59, who took over for Joe Girardi when the Phillies were 22-29, and the team went 65-46 the rest of the way. Thomson brought a more relaxed approach. "I love him,'' saidKyle Schwarber. "Everyone loves him. If anyone on the other team would ever go after our manager, 25 guys would jump over the dugout rail and kill the guy. Well, we wouldn't kill him -- you know what I mean.'' Thomson was a coach for the Yankees for 10 years, and more recently, Girardi's bench coach for the Phillies, but his calm hand and wry wit steadied the Phillies. During the NLDS against the Braves, Thomson, a Canadian and a former hockey player, was asked by the Philadelphia Flyers to perform the ceremonial bang of the drum five times before the hockey team's home opener.
"As I was leaving the arena, virtually every fan was wishing me luck, saying, 'Go get 'em, coach,''' Thomson said. "It was a great. A year ago, no one had any idea who I was.''
They do now. Two managers in major league history have taken over a team during a season and won the World Series that season: Bob Lemon with the 1978 Yankees and Jack McKeon with the 2003 Marlins. Thomson has a chance to become the third. And Baker, 73, has yet another shot to win his first World Series, although given he has 2,093 victories and is the only manager to win a division title with five teams, it seems likely that the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown will someday include Baker,win or lose this year.
There are so many fascinating storylines entering the 2022 World Series. It's going to be great. But no matter what happens, this postseason has again reminded us that baseball is the best game ever.