Here we go, or so we think. Baseball is about to be played — a 60-game irregular season, comprised entirely of intradivisional games, sort of. The playoffs will be as traditionally formatted, meaning no extra tier. The DH will be the coin of the entire MLB realm, not just half.
Opening day is set for July 23 or 24, roughly two weeks after the All-Star game would have been played. That’s opening day for the teams and players, not for fans. It’s taken as a given that the 2020 baseball season will be staged behind locked gates.
That season, such as it is, will be a 60-game dash for 10 playoff spots, and that’s all new. Because baseball usually plays so many games, a slow start can be overridden. Over a two-month season, one wretched week can inflict disproportionate damage.
After 60 games a year ago, the Braves were 33-27, putting them second in the National League East, a half-game behind Philadelphia. They would have qualified for the second wild card. As it happened, they finished 97-65, winning the East by four games over eventual World Series-winner Washington and 16 over Philly.
Where were the Nationals after 60 games last year? They were 27-33, holders of the NL’s 13th-worst record. Had the 2019 playoffs been set after 60 games, the Cubs and Phillies would have been the league’s Nos. 2 and 3 seeds. Neither wound up qualifying for postseason.
So yeah, this season will be different in duration, and surely different in approach. With three weeks of non-spring training to prepare, starting pitchers won’t be expected to work beyond five or six innings until well into August, which figures to make sprint-car baseball — in lieu of something better, let’s call it that — even more reliant on bullpens. (And what team just spent the biggest to load up on late-inning relievers? Why, your Braves.)
The Braves figured to win the NL East for a third year running. That still holds. The Nationals are without Anthony Rendon, their best player. The Mets are without Noah Syndergaard, who finally underwent Tommy John surgery. The Marlins aren’t really trying. If there’s one team in NL East that could profit from a truncated schedule, it’s the Phillies. They haven’t had a winning season since 2011, and they’re not deep enough to win big over 162 games; they do, however, have top-end talent. If they catch a flying start, they’ll be trouble.
The intradivisional part will be intriguing. The Braves will play 40 games against the NL East; the other 20 will be staged against the American League East. That means they’ll be seeing the Yankees and the Rays, each of which won 96-plus games last season, the former having added Gerrit Cole over the winter.
How the Braves fare against the AL portion of their schedule could be a difference-maker. Without playoff expansion, the difference between winning the division and a wild card remains immense. The wild-card teams get thrown in the infernal play-in game. Then again, the Nats were a wild card, and they just won it all. As we know, bodies of work don’t matter much in October — ask the Dodgers — and these bodies of work will be 37 percent of the standard size. Anything could happen this October.
That “anything” could, we must emphasize, include nothing at all. We can’t forget why this MLB season, slated to begin in March, was delayed until July. We were in the throes of a pandemic. We still are. Baseball is seeking to return just as many states, Florida and Arizona among them, are seeing spikes in COVID-19. Any notion MLB had of holding non-spring training at the customary spring sites in Florida/Arizona has yielded to ongoing reality. Most teams will now re-train at their big-league parks.
Remember when MLB floated its Arizona bubble? That scenario never took wing, though the NBA and MLS are trying something similar at Disney World. For its part, MLB will have no bubble. Making East teams play only East opponents shortens travel. It does not eliminate it. Baseball failed in its attempt to become the First Sport Back, but it’s the first sport back that will ask teams to move from city to city, plane to bus to hotel to bus to ballpark. The players agreed to MLB’s plans for their health and safety, but we’re reminded daily that the virus is very much with us.
MLB was adamant that its irregular season end in September. The players were willing to go longer — more games would have meant more in prorated salary — but the owners had heard from enough medical experts, Dr. Fauci among them, that playing baseball in October could be problematic. The colder it gets, the faster the virus spreads. Even the best health-and-safety plan mightn’t protect these players through Game 7 of the World Series, scheduled for Oct. 28.
Already more than 40 MLB players have tested positive, prompting baseball to shutter all its training sites. That’s without teams convening or practicing or traveling together. We know all leagues have contingencies for what to do in a Rudy Gobert Moment, but enough confirmed cases could shred any blueprint. We know MLB, after much wrangling, is planning to play a season. We can’t yet know if that season will reach a premature end.
We do know that MLB, which took forever to get going, is suddenly in a hurry. Should nine innings end with the score tied, the 10th will begin with a runner on second base. Having dispensed, at least for the moment, with players and owners fighting each other, baseball is now fighting the calendar and clock.
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