The clock had just struck 10 on Sunday morning, the dawn of a classic day of baseball. This was Game 162, and not one postseason matchup was set.
The Dodgers did not know what team they would play. But they knew they were in the playoffs, and their first game would not come until Friday. So there was no urgency in their clubhouse, even as teams across America started to take the field with their playoff seedings — and in one case their season — on the line.
As the Dodgers players straggled into the clubhouse, the television sets were on. MLB Network was on a couple of TV sets, the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers on a couple more, the NASCAR race of the day on one. Also, for no apparent reason, two were tuned to an informercial for a skin care product, enthusiastically endorsed by actress Courtney Thorne-Smith.
For the Dodgers, Game 162 had no meaning. Juan Uribe would manage the team, with Hanley Ramirez as bench coach and Clayton Kershaw as pitching coach. For Manager Don Mattingly and his coaching staff, that left open a tantalizing option.
“We’ll all party,” Mattingly joked, “and watch all the other games — and football — in my office.”
He could enjoy a laugh. That was not true for his colleagues on other teams, even those long out of the pennant races.
Jose Altuve, the second baseman for the Houston Astros and the leader in the American League batting race, said he wished to play. Tom Lawless, the Astros’ manager, put Altuve in the lineup. Then Altuve and Lawless met with General Manager Jeff Luhnow, and Altuve was told he would not play.
“I wanted to play,” Altuve told reporters covering the Astros. “It wasn’t an option.”
The Astros might have wanted to claim — and market — Altuve as a batting champion. But the Astros were shamed on social media — Ted Williams did not sit on his .400 average in 1941; he played and went six for eight — and Altuve was back in the lineup. When a team has to issue a disingenuous statement to explain a lineup change, it has been a long season indeed.
“Altuve approached Lawless prior to today’s game and was passionate about playing today,” the Astros statement read. “As the best player, he deserves the right to make that decision.”
Altuve got two hits and won the AL batting title, at .341. At Dodger Stadium, the Colorado Rockies held Justin Morneau out of the lineup to protect his average, and Morneau won the NL batting title at .319, after a meaningless pinch-hit at-bat. The Astros are a lightning rod for criticism nationally, the Rockies largely ignored and irrelevant, so there was no backlash against the decision to sit Morneau, who also was out of the lineup Saturday and finished four points ahead of Pittsburgh’s Josh Harrison.
“The guy has experienced a career-threatening injury and if he’s in a position to win a batting title, I’m going to try to make sure he does,” Rockies Manager Walt Weiss told Colorado reporters. “Anybody who has a problem with it, then their beef can be with me.”
Some fans of the Pittsburgh Pirates had a beef with Manager Clint Hurdle. The Pirates opened the day one game behind the St. Louis Cardinals, so they had to decide whether to use ace Gerrit Cole on Sunday or hold him back for the NL wild-card game, or for a potential NL Central tiebreaker. In order to force the tiebreaker, the Pirates would have to beat Cincinnati Reds ace Johnny Cueto, then have the Arizona Diamondbacks beat St. Louis ace Adam Wainwright.
Hurdle met with his veteran players. The Pirates would play to win, and pitch Cole.
“The only analytics that come into play in this decision are human analytics,” Hurdle told reporters covering the Pirates.
Soon after the Pirates took the field in Cincinnati, the New York Yankees did the same in Boston. After a summer of salute, the final game of Derek Jeter’s career finally had arrived. He hit a chopper in the third inning, good for an infield single, then left the game to a raucous ovation.
Jeter finished with 3,465 hits, sixth-most in baseball history. Two other distinguished careers came to a close on Sunday — Paul Konerko of the Chicago White Sox (439 home runs, eight more than Cal Ripken and 12 more than Mike Piazza) and Bobby Abreu of the New York Mets (2,470 hits, 55 more than Mickey Mantle).
And, before we could get to the pennant races, what was this? A no-hitter?
Yes indeed, by Jordan Zimmermann of the Washington Nationals, against the Miami Marlins. Stephen Strasburg might be the Nationals’ biggest name, but this was the record of the five Washington starters over their final 13 games: 13-0, with an 0.89 earned-run average. The NL East champion Nationals finished with 96 victories, most in the NL and two shy of the Angels for most in the majors.
Zimmermann thought he had lost the no-hitter when the final batter, Christian Yelich, hit a drive to deep left-center field. Zimmermann leaned back in frustration, then thrust his arms to the sky as he saw rookie Steven Souza leap and make an over-the-head, full-extension, no-hit-saving catch.
“No-doubt double and he comes out of nowhere,” Zimmermann told reporters in Washington. “Whatever he wants, I’ll buy him anything.”
The two division races up for grabs ended within minutes of each other. At 12:50 p.m. PDT, the Detroit Tigers won the AL Central, with David Price — the biggest name traded at the July 31 deadline — getting all but five outs in a 3-0 victory over the Minnesota Twins. The Kansas City Royals will play host to the AL wild-card game on Wednesday, the Royals’ first postseason game in 25 years.
At 1 p.m., the Reds beat the Pirates, 4-1, with Cueto getting the game-winning single and his 20th victory as well. With the Pirates’ loss, the Cardinals clinched the NL Central. And, as Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright was warming up to start a 1:10 p.m. game in Arizona, St. Louis promptly shut him down, the better to save him for Friday’s playoff opener against the Dodgers. The Pirates get to start Edinson Volquez in the NL wild-card game, against San Francisco Giants ace Madison Bumgarner.
That left one playoff spot undecided, with the Seattle Mariners needing to beat the Angels and needing the Oakland Athletics to lose to the Texas Rangers. Felix Hernandez of the Mariners did his part, striking out seven of the first 10 batters, and the Angels lost. But so did the Rangers, with Sonny Gray pitching a six-hit shutout — on his mother’s birthday, no less — to get the A’s into the playoffs after losing 30 of their previous 45 games.
The Mariners were the last team out of the playoffs. For the first time, four California teams were in. The Dodgers and Angels each will play at home Friday, when the forecast high is 99 degrees. Fall Classic? Bring it on.