The baseball gods spend six months twisting the sport into a knotty lump. No one knows quite how to untangle it, and then the final week zips by. All those possibilities, resolved just like that. The season rushes to the end.
“Rushes to the end,” Baltimore Orioles Manager Buck Showalter said, musing in his office at Yankee Stadium before this weekend’s critical series. “That sounds like a great name for a book.”
Now we can close the volume on the 2016 regular season. The Orioles survived to live another day, earning a date in Toronto on Tuesday for the American League wild-card game against the Blue Jays. The Mets will host the National League wild-card game the next night, against the San Francisco Giants at Citi Field.
The Orioles and the Blue Jays both won on Sunday to finish with identical records, 89-73. The Blue Jays won the teams’ season series to earn the right to host the game, which was also how the Mets did it. The Mets and the Giants both finished 87-75, but the Mets won the season series.
The A.L. wild-card winner will face the Texas Rangers, who went 95-67, in a division series opener on Thursday. The Boston Red Sox will visit Cleveland that day to start their series with the Indians. The N.L. series begin Friday in Chicago and Washington, with the Cubs (103-58) facing the wild-card winner and the Nationals hosting the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Before we get there, though, the one-game appetizers will be delicious.
The Orioles lost the A.L. Championship Series in 2014. The Blue Jays lost it last year. Neither of the teams, rivals in the A.L. East, has won a pennant in decades, and both are trying to do it with brute force. The Orioles led the majors in homers this season, with 253, and the Blue Jays had 221 — the next highest total in the 10-team playoff field.
The N.L. game features a dream pitchers’ duel: the Mets’ Noah Syndergaard against the Giants’ Madison Bumgarner. In Syndergaard’s last postseason appearance — Game 3 of last fall’s World Series against Kansas City — he announced his presence with a fastball to the backstop, then earned the Mets’ only victory. In Bumgarner’s last October game, he twirled five shutout innings on the road on two days’ rest to close out the Royals in Game 7 of the 2014 World Series.
The Royals are missing from the stage this time, slumping to a .500 record after their two trips to the World Series. Also absent: the St. Louis Cardinals, bystanders to the party after a streak of five postseason visits.
The Cardinals were alive at the start of play on Sunday but needed a victory and a loss by the Giants to force a tiebreaker game with San Francisco. The Cardinals beat Pittsburgh, 10-4, but the Giants did not comply. They thumped the Dodgers, 7-1, sweeping their final regular-season series after a ghastly second half had threatened their playoff hopes.
The Detroit Tigers also started the day needing help to keep playing. Their path to the wild card would have been complicated; had they survived Sunday, the Tigers would then have had to make up a game rained out last week.
Instead, the Tigers made it easy on themselves. They got seven strong innings from their ace, Justin Verlander, but lost by 1-0 in Atlanta when Justin Upton took a called third strike to end it with the tying run on first base.
The game finished with fans doing one last tomahawk chop chant, summoning the glory days of Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Greg Maddux. All returned to Turner Field as the Braves closed the park after only 20 seasons, bound for a new home in suburban Cobb County next spring.
The stadium had a brief and unfulfilling legacy. The Braves were a certified powerhouse when it opened, but they played only two World Series games within its walls, losing both to the Yankees in 1999. Three other teams — the 1997 Marlins, the 1998 Padres and the 2001 Diamondbacks — won the N.L. pennant on the Braves’ ground.
The Braves were one of eight teams with 90 losses this season, but no team came within nine games of the Minnesota Twins, who managed a victory Sunday over Chris Sale, the ace of the Chicago White Sox, to finish 59-103. It was the worst record for the franchise since 1949, when it was the Washington Senators.
After the game, White Sox Manager Robin Ventura announced he would not return next season. Ventura, the popular former third baseman, led Chicago to a winning record as a rookie manager in 2012, but four losing seasons followed.
“It’s not like they’re going to be building a statue out on the concourse,” he told reporters in Chicago, in his trademark deadpan, when asked what his legacy would be. “You do what you can, and that’s all you can really do.”
There were other goodbyes around the game. Boston’s David Ortiz played his final regular-season game, and the Red Sox announced that they would retire his No. 34. The Yankees held a ceremony to honor Mark Teixeira, their first baseman for the last eight years, who is retiring after 14 seasons. The Phillies also saluted first baseman Ryan Howard, whose option they will decline after the season.
Howard was the last link to the Phillies’ most recent championship, in 2008. He finished his final season in Philadelphia with a .196 average, the precise average Mike Schmidt produced as a rookie in 1973. Schmidt and Howard combined for 930 homers and led the Phillies to their only two titles.
Ortiz, Teixeira and Howard all went hitless, though Ortiz will get more swings in the playoffs. Vin Scully, the voice of the Dodgers for the last 67 seasons, had a more elegant send-off.
Scully, 88, finished his career at the home of the Dodgers’ rivals, who dedicated a plaque in the visiting broadcast booth at AT&T Park to commemorate his final game. Willie Mays dropped in for the occasion.
Scully grew up in New York and rooted for the Giants as a boy, sharing the story in his closing remarks after the game.
“You and I have been friends for a long time,” Scully told his audience. “But I know in my heart that I’ve always needed you more than you’ve ever needed me, and I’ll miss our time together more than I can say.”