SAN DIEGO — It was Saturday morning in Seattle, within the visitors’ dugout of an empty ballpark that was able to rock. James Click, the final manager of the Houston Astros, stood within the sunshine and regarded a straightforward query: Who was lined up to begin Game 4 on Sunday?
The expectation, Click said, was that there can be no fourth game. The plan was for the Astros to spoil the Mariners’ first home playoff game in 21 years and sweep their way into the American League Championship Series. That’s what great teams do, and while it took 18 innings for it to occur, that’s what the Astros did.
“These guys, they know to not panic,” Houston Manager Dusty Baker said that night, after his team’s 1-0 victory. “They don’t get too excited. They don’t get too down. It means quite a bit. When you’ve been through it and you then undergo it repeatedly and again, you then kind of expect excellence, and that’s what this team expects out of itself.”
On the National League side of the 2022 playoffs, the Philadelphia Phillies and the San Diego Padres barged into the N.L.C.S., combining to dump three teams with 100 victories and three division winners. The Padres had 89 regular-season wins, two greater than the Phillies, making this the primary L.C.S. ever during which neither team won 90 games in a full season.
On the other hand, the 2014 World Series did feature such a matchup: The 88-win San Francisco Giants beat the 89-win Kansas City Royals. That was the second all-wild-card World Series — after the Angels’ win over the Giants in 2002 — and each were seven-game thrillers. No person dwelled on the teams’ imperfect paths.
It is feasible to overdo it with playoffs; had the players’ union accepted the team owners’ proposal of seven playoff teams per league, every club with a winning record would have qualified for the 2022 Major League Baseball postseason. But playoffs, on principle, are unfair to the best teams: They’re really a sped-up, second-chance tournament to crown a champion.
The Phillies, especially, haven’t any reason to apologize. All three seasons in franchise history with 100 regular-season victories (1976, 1977 and 2011) ended with a loss in a best-of-five playoff round. It happens sometimes. It’s a feature of the system, not a bug.
Billy Beane, the longtime architect of the Oakland Athletics, put this into perspective a couple of years ago in an interview behind the batting cage before a playoff game.
“It’s interesting,” Beane said, in a comment I used for “The Grandest Stage,” my recent book exploring World Series history. “Within the Premier League, if Manchester City wins the league, they win the title. Thirty-eight matches, they win, they usually don’t have a tournament.
“But we love tournaments. It’s just like the N.C.A.A. We just like the N.C.A.A. tournament because we love the thought that Princeton can knock Georgetown out in the primary round — and sometimes they do.
“Most of the time, it’s going to work in our favor. As a smaller team, us and the Rays would like that randomness to find out it, because a team just like the Dodgers, Astros or Yankees is generally going to be more powerful. So the more teams you add, the more random it’s going to be.”
That randomness is healthy for the game. The Fifties are sometimes romanticized as a golden era, but that is basically due to the lens through which it’s viewed: From the 1949 opener through the 1957 opener, Recent York teams won 47 World Series games in a row. That would not have been much fun for the remaining of the country.
It continues to be possible to gather multiple championships with the identical core group of players — Joe Torre’s Yankees won 4 and Bruce Bochy’s Giants won three — but what’s incorrect with fans in a lot of cities having a probability to fly a flag from their front porch?
Since 2000, when the Yankees became the last repeat champion, 12 franchises have won their first title or ended a drought of not less than a quarter-century: the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks, the 2002 Angels, the 2004 Boston Red Sox, the 2005 Chicago White Sox, the 2008 Phillies, the 2010 Giants, the 2015 Royals, the 2016 Chicago Cubs, the 2017 Astros, the 2019 Washington Nationals, the 2020 Dodgers and the 2021 Atlanta Braves.
The Yankees and the Dodgers generate extraordinary revenue and almost all the time outspend their rivals. Those built-in benefits help them reach the postseason almost every 12 months. The playoff system is one of the best approach to check their supremacy and keep fans in other markets interested.
It continues to be very hard to win, and money is a large factor; with payrolls that rank among the many top five within the majors, the Padres and the Phillies are only relative underdogs. The Mets and the Dodgers couldn’t capitalize on their postseason benefits — extra rest for the Dodgers and home-field edge for each — and San Diego prevailed. The Phillies did the identical to St. Louis and Atlanta.
Did the Dodgers and the Braves get stale by waiting five days between the tip of the regular season and the beginning of their division series? Possibly, but how does that designate the Astros’ sweeping the Mariners?
There continues to be a standard-bearer on display this October, and it is straightforward to seek out. Many fans won’t ever forgive the Astros for his or her sign-stealing scheme in 2017, the 12 months they won their only championship. But they’re the dominant team of this era, with a solid that has modified greatly since their tainted title season.
The Padres have gone 24 years since their last appearance in an L.C.S. The Phillies have gone a dozen. The Astros are an annual visitor, having clinched a sixth straight appearance. The Yankees and the Cleveland Guardians have prolonged their division series to a winner-take-all finale Monday night.
Unpredictability, affirmation of greatness, series that stretch to the limit — this is the reason we watch, and why these playoffs needs to be something to have a good time.