Marathon season ends with sprint to finish for Twins, White Sox
You figure that 162 games ought to be enough. I mean, that's part of the beauty of baseball, right? Over the course of a back-breaking, mind-mushing, weather-changing 162-game baseball season, the best teams always end up popping to the surface. Isn't that how it's supposed to work?
Well, yeah. Except in years like this one. And last year. And, yes, several other times in baseball history, too. Sometimes, despite a full season's worth of games, it's still darn near impossible to find a winner, no matter how you pick 'em. Sometimes, you just need 163.
And so the Twins and the White Sox, two teams that already have played each other 18 times this season -- Twins 10, White Sox 8 -- meet on Chicago's South Side on Tuesday night to determine the American League Central title in what is, in many ways, the antithesis of what baseball is all about. Forget about things shaking out over the course of six months of nearly non-stop games. Forget the, "It's a marathon, not a sprint" spiel. Forget the 162.
"One hundred sixty two games wasn't enough to decide this thing," White Sox reliever Scott Linebrink told Chicago reporters on Monday. "It's going to take one extra game. And I don't think we would have it any other way."
One game. One winner. One goes to the playoffs. One doesn't. That's 163.
One-game tiebreakers -- playoffs, play-in games, whatever you want to call them -- have a kind of sketchy history in baseball. The first one was in 1908, when more than 200,000 rowdy fans showed up at the Polo Grounds in New York for a game between the Cubs and New York Giants. It was a rematch of a game a couple of weeks earlier that ended in a controversial tie -- the famed "Merkle's Boner" game -- and, this time, the Cubs won. They went on to beat the Tigers in the World Series. That was, if you haven't heard, the last time the Cubs won the Series.
The National League actually ditched the one-game playoff for years. When teams were tied after the season -- whether it was 162 games or the old 154-game season -- they played a three-game series to decide things. It had been that way in 1946 when the Cardinals and Brooklyn Dodgers, playing a 154-game season back then, each finished with 98 wins and proceeded into the first three-game tiebreaker. The Cards won that one in two games.
The AL stuck with a one-game tiebreaker, though the AL had to use it only once. That was in 1948 when the Indians and Red Sox ended the regular season with 96 wins apiece. The Indians won the single-game elimination -- No. 155 -- at Fenway Park, 8-3.
(A brief historical aside: You think managers have trouble setting up postseason rotations now? Faced with a tired staff, Boston skipper Joe McCarthy bypassed ace Mel Parnell for that extra game in '48 and instead -- despite the screaming of fans and his team -- went with Denny Galehouse, a 36-year-old Navy veteran. Galehouse was rocked and took the loss.)
The NL needed a three-game tiebreaker again in '51 -- the Shot Heard 'Round the World, "The Giants win the Pennant!" and all that was the third game in '51 -- and, even after the switch from 154 to 162 games (in 1961), the league continued the best-of-three format. The Dodgers and Giants were the first teams to play 162 games and need a tiebreaker to settle things, in 1962. The Giants won that one in three games.
The NL finally joined the AL and switched to the one-game, winner-take-all tiebreaker with the advent of divisional play in the 1969 season, but it wasn't until 1978 that it finally was needed. That was the first No. 163, the year that one man gained fame and a wickedly unofficial nickname -- Bucky "Bleepin'" Dent -- for a home run against the Red Sox that sent the Yankees to the playoffs.
With Roy White on first and Chris Chambliss on second and two outs in the seventh inning in Boston's Fenway Park, Dent, batting last in the New York lineup, popped a pitch over the Green Monster to put the Yankees ahead, 3-2. They would win the game and, eventually the World Series, making them the only winner of a one-game playoff in the divisional era to use the tiebreaker as a springboard to a world title.
(Historical aside No. 2: In the clubhouse afterward, Dent pointed his finger at Yankees owner George Steinbrenner and said, according to a Washington Post re-telling at the time, "You would have shipped me out if I'd hit into a double play." Said Steinbrenner: "Oh, maybe not.")
Since Dent went yard on Mike Torrez we've had five more No. 163s -- in '80, '95, '98, '99 and 2007. The last three of them determined the wild card winner, not a division winner.
Last year, the Padres lost the last two games of the season against the Brewers, and the Rockies won their two against the Diamondbacks to force a one-game playoff in Denver's Coors Field to find the wild card. "I didn't want it to come down to this, but it has," Padres ace Jake Peavy said. "It's going to be fun. Hey, we're starting the playoffs with Game 7, you know?"
The two teams played 13 innings in a No. 163 that lasted four hours, 40 minutes. The teams burned through seven pinch-hitters, a couple of pinch-runners, 28 batters that amassed 29 hits (including 15 extra-base hits) and 15 different pitchers who threw 426 pitches that struck out 26 batters and walked 14. The Rockies won, 9-8.
The Twins have never been in anything like this. They won the AL Central on the last day of the 2006 season, but they would have been assured the wild card even if they had lost. The Twins' historical predecessors, the Washington Senators, never were involved in a one-game playoff, or even came close.
The White Sox, of course, have pretty limited exposure to these types of playoffs, too, though Monday's game against the Tigers in Chicago was essentially the same thing. Had the White Sox lost that one, their season would have been done. Instead, in a makeup that goes down as game No. 162, the Sox beat Detroit, 8-2.
Back on March 31, the White Sox started the 2008 season by losing to the Indians in Cleveland. A few hours later, the Twins beat the Angels in Minneapolis. In between the start of the season and now, the two teams have combined for 1,639 runs, 3.023 hits and 216 errors.
Now, on the last day of September, the Sox and Twins have identical 88-74 records. Now, after all that, the season is about to end for one of them.
"One hundred sixty-two games mean nothing," White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said Monday. "It's about one more game."
Yep. No. 163.