As Major League Baseball’s shortest season ever came to a close Sunday evening, the largest postseason field in its history finally came into focus.
Even if one club had to experience the joy via the magic of television.
The St. Louis Cardinals cleared up a ton of ambiguity by defeating the Milwaukee Brewers 5-2 to nail down second place in the NL Central with a 30-28 record.
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Why just 58 games? The Cardinals were ravaged by an outbreak of COVID-19 cases in July and August, and the pandemic that has killed more than 200,000 Americans and idled sports until the summer forced St. Louis to idle their season for 16 days.
Yet come Sunday, both clubs hit hardest by the novel coronavirus – the Cardinals and Miami Marlins, who lost 16 players just three games into their season – found themselves in MLB’s 16-team field.
The final ticket was punched when the San Francisco Giants lost to the San Diego Padres 5-4. That sent the Brewers – watching breathlessly on TV from the catacombs of Busch Stadium after losing to the Cardinals – into the playoffs. The Phillies, too, blew a chance to get in with a 5-0 loss at Tampa Bay.
MLB PLAYOFF SCHEDULE: Wild-card round, divisional series, ALCS, NLCS, World Series dates, times, TV information
This shortened season brought truncated greatness and a fair amount of mediocrity – the Brewers and Houston Astros, both 29-31, made the playoffs with losing records, a first.
So be it.
“We can’t tell you everything we did. We probably broke a couple rules,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said of their semi-socially distanced celebration in St. Louis after the Giants’ loss. “We’re in. We’re in the playoffs. There’s no reason to apologize.
“We’re in and we’ve got a chance to win the World Series, still. It’s get in. The record is irrelevant.”
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The seeds and division titles and all else? Settled business. And for the first time in 2020, teams will play opponents from outside their geographic region, before the winners advance to neutral-site bubbles in Los Angeles and San Diego (AL) and Houston and Arlington, Texas (NL).
Here’s how the matchups look entering the first and perhaps last wild-card round, with four best-of-three series in each league – the AL starting Tuesday, the NL on Wednesday:
No. 8 Toronto Blue Jays at No. 1 Tampa Bay Rays: The Rays won six of 10 against Toronto this year and Game 1 will be a battle of talented left-handers – Hyun-Jin Ryu for the Blue Jays and Blake Snell for the Rays.
No. 5 New York Yankees at No. 4 Cleveland Indians: An ALCS-worthy matchup in this rinky-dink first round – are you ready for Gerrit Cole vs. Shane Bieber? The Yankees come in healthier and relatively upright after losing streaks of seven and five games cost them any shot at the East – and nearly dropped them to the No. 8 seed.
No. 6 Houston Astros at No. 3 Minnesota Twins: The Astros began the year in shame after their sign-stealing scandal but can still end it covered in champagne. Up first is a date with old friend Marwin Gonzalez’s Twins.
No. 7 Chicago White Sox at No. 2 Oakland Athletics: The A’s begin perhaps their final weeks with shortstop Marcus Semien by playing the team they acquired him from, in a December 2014 trade. Another piece in that trade: Chris Bassitt, who has been the A’s best starting pitcher down the stretch.
No. 8 Milwaukee Brewers at No. 1 Los Angeles Dodgers: A rematch of the 2018 NLCS, though this time the Dodgers are without Ryu and will start Walker Buehler and Clayton Kershaw out of the gate. Game 2 will be a 2018 playoff rematch with Kershaw pitted against Brandon Woodruff, who has evolved into a dominant starter.
No. 5 St. Louis Cardinals at No. 4 San Diego Padres: The staid and steady vs. the young and dynamic. The Padres arrived a year early behind MVP-caliber years from Fernando Tatis Jr. and Manny Machado. But the health of starters Dinelson Lamet and Mike Clevinger may determine if they get past the ever-resourceful Cardinals.
No. 6 Miami Marlins at No. 3 Chicago Cubs: A rematch of the stirring/gut-wrenching 2003 NLCS, which launched the Marlins into their second world title and the Cubs into 13 more years of misery. This is the Marlins’ first playoff bid since. The Cubs, meanwhile, were the lone club not to have a player test positive for COVID-19.
No. 7 Cincinnati Reds at No. 2 Atlanta Braves: Who’s the favorite in this one? The Reds will have Trevor Bauer, Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray aligned and come in winners of 11 of their last 14. Atlanta, three-time NL East champions, will try to avoid a third consecutive opening-round exit, hoping Max Fried can outduel Bauer to start.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: MLB’s expanded playoff field is set. A quick look at all 8 wild-card series matchups