It’s the last week of the MLB regular season, which means that for beleaguered fans of disappointing teams, the end is nigh. To those poor souls, I extend my sincere congratulations — baseball’s greatest virtue, its comforting omnipresence, can feel positively suffocating when things are going badly. You’ve survived; now go enjoy a hard-earned offseason.
But for those of you who follow teams that are still in the playoff hunt, or for people with no particular dog in the fight at all, things are about to get fun. The pennant race is finally down to the wire, and this is the best time of year for scoreboard-watching or going split screen on MLB.TV. Playoff baseball is so much more intense than the regular season, so it’s dangerous to just jump in without acclimating yourself first, and this coming week is a good opportunity to get a taste of October without shocking your system.
In the interest of helping you choose which parts of the scoreboard to watch, here are 10 things to look for during the last week of the season.
1. Brewers vs. Cardinals
MLB’s schedule-makers know what they’re doing, and they stuffed the last week of the season with matchups that have the potential to decide playoff races and seeding: The Red Sox end their season with a 12-game stretch that includes nine games against the Yankees and Indians, while the Phillies’ last 11 games this year come against the Braves and Rockies, giving them a furious sprint to the finish against direct competitors for the division and the wild card.
But the Red Sox and Indians have had their respective divisions wrapped up for a while, and the Phillies, who led the NL East as recently as August 12, are 6–14 in September, and were eliminated from the division race with more than a week to spare. So somewhat improbably, it looks like there will be only one more head-to-head matchup left on the schedule that will likely have playoff implications for both teams: the three-game Brewers-Cardinals series that starts Monday. The gap between these two teams is two games, which leaves a range of outcomes in play, ranging from the Brewers wrapping up home-field advantage in the wild-card game and/or catching the Cubs in the NL Central, or the Cardinals all but locking up a playoff spot and climbing back into the divisional race themselves. Maybe the Cardinals’ final weekend series against the Cubs could also have playoff implications.
If you’re going to circle one game out of this set, look out for the matchup between Milwaukee’s Gio Gonzalez and Cardinals right-hander Jack Flaherty, who leads all rookie starters (excluding Rays opener Ryne Stanek) in strikeout rate. A standout start from Flaherty here could help him build a legend in a city that loves rookie pitchers who come up big in the clutch — just ask Adam Wainwright or Michael Wacha.
2. The End of a Managerial Era
There were times when it felt like Mike Scioscia’s 10-year, $50 million contract was never going to end, but it will, this week, leaving the Angels without a manager for the first time since 1999. Scioscia’s contract running down has been a tertiary subplot in Anaheim this year, what with Ohtanimania and the sudden awareness that Mike Trout will be a free agent soon. But Scioscia has been managing the Angels since those two were in grade school. By season’s end, Scioscia will have managed 3,078 games with the Angels. That’s more than Tommy Lasorda managed with the Dodgers, Earl Weaver with the Orioles, or Tom Kelly with the Twins. At age 59, Scioscia is three years younger than Braves manager Brian Snitker, who’s only two years and change into his first managerial job, so he could catch on elsewhere, but this could be it for Scioscia Face, so get an eyeful while you can.
3. Oaklands in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear
It’s been pretty clear for weeks now that the A’s and Yankees are going to be the American League’s two wild-card teams, but the site of the game is suddenly very much uncertain. The A’s have not been ahead of the Yankees at any point during this season, but with one week to play, they’re just 1.5 games back in the standings. Both teams spend the last week of the season on the road against good teams — Oakland for six games against the Mariners and Angels, New York for seven games against the Rays and Red Sox — but the Yankees face a somewhat tougher schedule, which makes this lead perfectly attainable.
One potential complication for Oakland: The Yankees and A’s split their season series, so in the event of a tie, the Yankees would host based on their superior record against their own division.
4. Jacob deGrom’s Last Start
DeGrom, as you might have heard, is having an outstanding season. He’s leading all MLB starting pitchers in WARP and is beating the league-average ERA by more than Bob Gibson did in 1968 when he posted a 1.12 ERA, the lowest in the live-ball era. But because of the weird ineptitude of the New York Mets, deGrom has a 9–9 record despite tossing quality starts each of the past 23 times he’s taken the mound. That’s the third-longest streak since MLB integrated in 1947, trailing Jake Arrieta in 2015–16, when he won the Cy Young on the strength of a dominant second half, and a 26-start streak by Gibson that takes up about two-thirds of that 1968 season. (The all-time record for consecutive quality starts, at least dating back to the start of Baseball-Reference’s data set in 1908, is held by a man named Kaiser Wilhelm, presumably not the same Kaiser Wilhelm who abdicated the German throne in 1918 after losing World War I.)
As of right now, deGrom is slated to make his last start of the season on Thursday at Citi Field. If he pitches well but the Mets lose, which has been known to happen, he could become the first starting pitcher since Eddie Smith in 1937 to post more bWAR than wins. And if deGrom goes on to win the Cy Young, which is perhaps more likely since this win doesn’t depend on the Mets providing run support, he would demolish Felix Hernandez’s record for fewest wins by a Cy Young–winning starting pitcher (13), and become the first starting pitcher to win the Cy Young with a losing record.
As it stands now, deGrom has 9.1 bWAR. No pitcher has reached the nine-bWAR plateau over a full season since Zack Greinke in 2015, and heading into this season, only three pitchers (Pedro Martínez once, and Greinke and Randy Johnson twice each) have posted a nine-bWAR season since 2000. Of course, even that accomplishment comes with a weird undermining caveat: deGrom doesn’t lead the league in bWAR, Philadelphia’s Aaron Nola does, thanks to what is probably a statistical fluke created by the Phillies’ appalling team defense. The last pitcher to get to 9.0 bWAR and not lead the league was Wilbur Wood, all the way back in 1972.
5. Bartolo Colón
We always love it when Colón pitches, but those opportunities are becoming increasingly hard to come by. The zaftig right-hander, who turns 46 next May, aims to pitch in 2019, but he followed up a 6.48 ERA in 2017 with a 5.78 ERA this year, and who knows whether anyone will want him? Colón has been a folk hero in his current incarnation for ages, but it’s really staggering how long he’s been a fixture in the MLB landscape. Look at the names in this box score from Colón’s complete-game win over the Yankees in the 1998 ALCS — Paul O’Neill, Joe Girardi, Sandy Alomar, Hard Hittin’ Mark Whiten — and consider also that this game took place two and a half weeks before the birth of Washington Nationals outfielder Juan Soto, who has 20 home runs and a .405 OBP this year.
Colón lost his spot in the Rangers rotation almost a month ago, and since then he’s made just two relief appearance as the team has shifted its focus toward testing unproven youngsters at the end of a lost season. I hope interim Texas manager Don Wakamatsu finds a spare inning or two for Bartolo this week, just in case he doesn’t find a team next year.
6. The Next K-Rod
Francisco Rodriguez’s 2002 postseason is a well-known piece of baseball legend. As a 20-year-old rookie with just 5.2 career big league innings under his belt, the man who became K-Rod edged his way into the Angels’ postseason roster as part of a loaded Anaheim bullpen and earned five wins en route to a World Series title. The unheralded-rookie-turned-postseason-difference-maker is a great story, and there are a few candidates for that role in 2018.
Milwaukee Brewers right-hander Corbin Burnes was a fourth-rounder out of St. Mary’s in 2016, but by mid-2018 he’d climbed up to no. 27 on FanGraphs’ midseason prospect rankings. Burnes’s long-term future is likely in the rotation, but like K-Rod, he’s a bespectacled right-hander who’s racked up wins as part of a deep relief corps — six wins in 34 innings over 27 appearances.
The Astros have also found room for a hard-throwing rookie righty, 25-year-old Josh James, who’s bounced back and forth from the rotation to a multi-inning relief role, tickling 101 miles per hour with his fastball along the way. James seems perfect for the multi-inning relief/tandem starter role the Astros used Lance McCullers, Charlie Morton, and Brad Peacock for during last postseason’s World Series run.
7. Justus Sheffield
Like Burnes, Sheffield was a top-30 prospect on FanGraphs’ midseason list, but unlike Burnes he’s probably not going to play a huge role in his team’s postseason bullpen — if he makes the roster at all. However, the 22-year-old Yankees left-hander is still worth keeping an eye out for. Sheffield came to New York from Cleveland through the Andrew Miller trade two years ago, and figures to feature in the Yankees rotation as soon as next season. Since being called up on September 16, he’s thrown only a single inning, so it doesn’t look like the Yankees are grooming him for a K-Rod role, but he’s a lefty with a plus fastball and the potential for multiple plus secondary pitches — that alone makes him worth changing the channel for if he’s on.
Sheffield is a stand-in for the numerous players who have used, or will use, the last month of the season as a tryout for 2019, and for teams that are either locked into a playoff spot or locked out of one, that’s usually the big motivating factor for tuning in. (Kansas City shortstop Adalberto Mondesi is just one more example, if you feel like braving the rest of the Royals lineup to see him.) If baseball weren’t being ground to the bare nub of efficiency by the relentless amoral literalism of late capitalism, we might be able to see the likes of Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Eloy Jimenez, but this is unfortunately not the world we live in.
8. Myles Straw
Back in 2000, Cardinals first baseman Mark McGwire hit .305/.483/.746, but injuries limited him to just 89 games, and when he was on the field, Big Mac made today’s Albert Pujols look like Billy Hamilton. At the same time, the Cardinals had a minor league outfielder named Esix Snead, who hit just .235/.340/.282 at Single-A Potomac, but he stole 109 bases in 132 games. (Between hits, walks, and hit-by-pitches, Snead reached base 195 times and attempted to steal 144 times.) It became fashionable to suggest that the Cardinals bring up Snead for the stretch run and have him serve as a dedicated pinch runner for McGwire, though this proposal never came to fruition.
A few years ago, the Kansas City Royals tried their own version of the Snead gambit with Terrance Gore, a dedicated pinch runner who between the regular season and playoffs in 2014 and 2015 appeared in 28 games, batted just six times, and scored eight runs while stealing 11 bases in 12 attempts. (The one time Gore was caught, in the 2015 ALDS in Houston, he beat the throw but was called out on one of those horseshit replays where his foot came off the bag for a fraction of a second.) It wasn’t until this year that Gore, now with the Cubs and in his fifth big league season, recorded his first big league hit.
The Astros have a new version of the speedster-for-hire in Straw, a 2015 12th-round pick out of a Florida junior college. Straw hit .291/.381/.353 across two minor league levels this year, with 70 steals in 79 attempts, and since his big league debut on September 15, he’s appeared in six games — four of them as a pinch runner, two more as a defensive replacement, and on Saturday night, Straw recorded his first career stolen base. Straw is unbelievably fast, fast enough to be useful as a bench player even on a team with as much overall speed as the Astros.
9. David Wright
It’s been 28 months since Wright appeared in a big league game, and the key role he played in the Mets’ 2015 World Series run makes it easy to forget that he’s played in only 75 games in the past four seasons. The injury update header on Wright’s Baseball-Reference page includes the words “multiple” and “various,” which is a pretty fair summation of the ways in which the 35-year-old seven-time All-Star’s body has let him down.
But Wright is healthy enough now to run out there for one last start, on Saturday against the Marlins, and perhaps the odd appearance as a pinch hitter before that. These will be Wright’s final appearances in a Mets uniform. While he is not the only star who’s hanging it up after this week — Chase Utley is also retiring, and Tigers DH Victor Martinez announced that he is, too, after one last home game on Saturday — Wright deserves special mention because of his two-year injury absence.
It wasn’t that long ago that Wright was one of the 10 best players in baseball, and by virtue of his charisma, and playing in New York, he was one of the game’s biggest stars, set to become the face of baseball in the post–Mitchell Report era. It didn’t quite work out that way — Wright’s Mets followed up their 2006 NLCS appearance with a string of disappointments, and injuries all but ended Wright’s career at age 31. But for a time, he was exactly the kind of superstar that baseball struggles to cultivate, and Saturday is one last chance to send him off in style.
10. Unpredictable Strangeness
You all remember the last week of school, when the final assignments have been handed in and you’re just killing time to hit state-mandated minimum attendance days. These are the days your teacher lets you have class outside or just play cards all period. And on some level, most baseball teams are similar. With nothing to play for, sometimes the only thing left to do is have fun.
That’s why, for instance, the last two players to play all nine positions in a game did so on the last weekend of the regular season. Or take Adam Greenberg, who got hit in the head in his first MLB plate appearance in 2005 and suffered what amounted to a career-ending concussion. He returned to the big leagues on a one-day contract for one pinch-hit appearance for the Marlins in 2012, which took place in the team’s 161st game. Something unusual like that happens every year — you’ve just got to remember to look for it.