David Ortiz saw it in David Price, that “he wasn’t himself.” Ortiz mentioned coming off the complete game in Texas and the toll it may have taken on the Rays great lefty now that it is October.
Perhaps it is true of a lot of Rays, not that they admit it. But the fact remains that they played Sunday in Toronto, Monday in Texas, Wednesday in Cleveland, Friday and Saturday in Boston, and while Jon Lester was brilliant in Game One and the Red Sox played Fenway to perfection with their dink-and-dunk offense until Koji Uehara closed out the 7-4 win with his 11 pitch, 11 strike ninth, a little of that edge that Tampa Bay has brought into Boston these last six years just seemed to be awry.
For anyone who likes baseball, the Rays are one of the teams for whom one always roots, because they win unconventionally, because they have players like Evan Longoria and Price and Alex Cobb that are special. But this week tacked on to a 162 game grind that came down to having to win and win and win just to get to Arlington, Tex. and Cleveland just to get back to Fenway and the ALDS may be more than virtually any team could overcome, especially against the team that earned the right to be respected as the best team in the American League.
This is the way it should be. This is why the regular season counts, and why the new playoff system works.
For years, many of us have complained that there was little disincentive to play out the final weeks of September preparing for the post-season, because there was little difference between finishing first or being the wild card, as those 2004 banners flying above Fenway proved. Now, it means something to win out.
The Red Sox didn’t celebrate when they clinched a post-season berth for the first time since 2009, which is pretty remarkable considering 2012 was a season-long march from The Russian Front. They celebrated when they clinched winning the American League, and while John Farrell picked and chose rest days, they made it a point to drive for the best record and home field advantage—and the Rays can speak for the advantages of Fenway’s home field after the two ALDS games—right down to the end. So did the Cardinals and Braves, who made it clear it was important to finish with the best record in the National League. As did the Pirates, who not only celebrated that city’s first post-season since the G.H.W. Bush Administration, but went into Cincinnati on the final weekend of the season and went home with the PNC advantage in the play-in game, an advantage Johnny Cueto likely still hears in his sleep.
We are likely to hear the whines of the micro-images of national television ratings, how New York and Chicago are not involved, and how Oakland, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Tampa—the first post-season team to finish last in home attendance—aren’t big and glitzy and limited in terms of celebrity fans. Fine.
But in the final weeks of the 2013 season, the Tigers had to keep playing a limping Miguel Cabrera. David Ortiz and Jacoby Ellsbury made quick rehab recoveries to play. Jason Heyward rushed himself back into the lineup while still recovering from a shattered face, and even though the Braves couldn’t beat the Cardinals for the best record, they earned the right to open the NLDS against the Dodgers in Atlanta, where they had the best home record in the league.
This all happened because of the restored integrity of the regular season. Is Jonny Gomes’ Game One double a hit in The Trop? Is Stephen Drew’s triple a hit in St. Pete? Maybe, maybe not. Are David Price and Matt Moore worn-down versions of the aces who threw consecutive night shutouts in Fenway in July? Maybe.
Then maybe Game Two of the NLDS is different being played at Dodger Stadium. Maybe the Tigers could have picked up the difference between Sonny Gray’s fastball and curveball out of his hand—difficult enough because they come out of the same arm slot—in the nightfall in Detroit. Fine.
All it means is that Dodger fans may understand that those tickets in May mean something, Athletics fans appreciate that their Midnight Riders are here because the rubber hit the road every day of the season. Braves fans Friday night had to realize that when Julio Teheran beat Gio Gonzalez 2-1 on August 6 and again on August 18 and Kris Medlen beat Cliff Lee 1-0 on September 27, they got them something meaningful in October, something meaningful for a team that hasn’t won a post-season series since 2001.
While the Alex Rodriguez Circus grabs its share of the spotlight and Tabloid Nation breathlessly awaits whether or not his lawyers’ next suit is against Miley Cyrus, it is irrelevant to what this October and September have been. Bud Selig and the people who run baseball came up with a system that gave us back pennant races, made September important and thus made October even more important, and if the wild card Pirates and the wild card Rays make it to the World Series, their stories are all the more remarkable and enjoyable.