No as­ter­isk needed for most un­usual base­ball sea­son

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Sports - BY PAUL NEWBERRY As­so­ci­ated Press

No need for an as­ter­isk. De­fy­ing all skep­ti­cism that this was noth­ing more than a wa­tered-down money grab with lit­tle chance of reach­ing the fin­ish line (yep, I’m rais­ing my hand), Ma­jor League Base­ball has pulled off its two-month sprint of a reg­u­lar sea­son amid the coro­n­avirus pan­demic.

With the play­offs set to be­gin next week, the 60game cam­paign of 2020 cer­tainly de­serves a place right along­side those 162game, six-month-long marathons of past years.

“They’re prob­a­bly feel­ing like they would if they had played 162 games, re­ally, with the men­tal drain and every­thing else that was on ’em,” said At­lanta Braves man­ager Brian Snitker, who guided his team to a third straight NL East ti­tle.

In many ways, this sea­son was even more de­mand­ing than the usual grind.

With the most ex­ten­sive travel of any ma­jor sport that’s be­ing played dur­ing the pan­demic, the odds were stacked against base­ball from that very first pitch back in late July.

“Oh man, it was a chal­lenge ev­ery day — for ev­ery­body, not just us,” Snitker said. “The ob­sta­cles we over­came, the hur­dles we had to jump over, it was some­thing else.”

Sev­eral no­table play­ers opted out be­fore the sea­son even be­gan. At­lanta slug­ger Fred­die Free­man was stricken with COVID-19 dur­ing sum­mer camp and be­came so ill that he prayed just to make it through the night.

The Mi­ami Mar­lins and the St. Louis Car­di­nals had wide­spread out­breaks in the open­ing weeks, forc­ing the post­pone­ment of nu­mer­ous games. There was talk of Com­mis­sioner Rob Man­fred threat­en­ing to shut down the sea­son if more teams were af­fected.

In the end, it some­how worked out bet­ter than any­one could’ve ex­pected.

Check out the Mar­lins, who head into the week­end poised to make the play­offs for the first time since 2003 de­spite be­ing forced to make nearly 200 ros­ter moves.

“It has been dif­fi­cult,” man­ager Don Mat­tingly said. “You’ve seen guys in the locker room you’ve never seen be­fore, some guys you’ve never even heard about be­fore.”

Even with a much shorter sched­ule, most of base­ball’s cream has risen to the top. There are cer­tainly some sur­prises, such as the San Diego Padres claim­ing their first post­sea­son berth since 2006 and the reign­ing World Se­ries cham­pion Washington Na­tion­als slump­ing to last place. But it’s worth not­ing that of the 10 play­off teams from 2019, only the Nats had been elim­i­nated go­ing into the fi­nal week­end.

Also, let’s give props to the new rules, which were viewed by tra­di­tion­al­ists (again, rais­ing my hand) as just a gim­micky way to beef up in­ter­est.

Turns out, the game was not ru­ined by both leagues us­ing the des­ig­nated hit­ter. It ac­tu­ally made things much more in­ter­est­ing to have le­git­i­mate hit­ters man­ning ev­ery spot in the bat­ting or­der, rather than en­dur­ing the help­less swings of a pitcher.

The Braves, for in­stance, were able use out­fielder Mar­cell Ozuna in the DH role from time to time, en­sur­ing his pow­er­ful bat was at the plate in ev­ery game.

“A lot of us like the Na­tional League rules, but it worked out well for us this year,” said Free­man, who bounced back from his ill­ness to have a mon­ster sea­son wor­thy of MVP con­sid­er­a­tion. “It was huge for us to have him be in that lineup ev­ery sin­gle night.”

We’ve also got no com­plaints about dou­ble­header games be­ing only seven in­nings long, or ex­tra in­nings start­ing with a baserun­ner be­ing placed at se­cond base.

Both changes pre­sented a whole new set of strate­gic op­por­tu­ni­ties, and MLB should con­sider mak­ing them per­ma­nent go­ing for­ward.

The shorter games forced man­agers into a height­ened sense of ur­gency through what had been the lull of the mid­dle in­nings. The ex­tra-in­ning baserun­ner gave vis­it­ing teams the op­tion of play­ing for a sin­gle run with a bunt or swing­ing away in hopes of blow­ing the game open.

It was all rather en­ter­tain­ing, though we’d like to make one sug­ges­tion: Play the 10th un­der nor­mal rules be­fore putting a baserun­ner at se­cond to start the 11th if the game is still tied.

The ex­panded play­offs — 16 of 30 teams will make it this year — are also worth con­sid­er­ing for a 2021 sea­son that we all hope will sig­nal a re­turn of at least some de­gree of nor­malcy.

Granted, 16 play­off teams is too many, but an ex­pan­sion from 10 to 12 should cer­tainly be on the ta­ble. That way, the two divi­sion win­ners in each league would get a firstround bye, while the re­main­ing divi­sion win­ner and best se­cond-place team from each league could host an en­tire be­stof-three se­ries against a pair of wild-card teams.

We’re par­tic­u­larly in­trigued with the all­games-in-one-city for­mat of the wild-card round, which will be used next week in empty sta­di­ums mainly as a way to cut down on travel that could po­ten­tially ex­pose teams to the virus.

Let’s see how that works with fans in the stands and a real home-field ad­van­tage, which will hope­fully be pos­si­ble next year.

Base­ball must re­main dili­gent through the play­offs, which af­ter the open­ing round will be played en­tirely at neu­tral sites to mimic the NBA and NHL bub­bles that have been so suc­cess­ful at sti­fling the virus.

But the hard part, it would seem, is over.

JOHN BAZEMORE AP

At­lanta Braves short­stop Dansby Swan­son is greeted by man­ager Brian Snitker and coach Walt Weiss, left, at the dugout af­ter hit­ting a three-run home run against the Mar­lins on Wed­nes­day. The Braves clinched their third-straight NL East crown.

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