The final weekend of the regular season is upon us. The Dodgers are in the playoffs. The Angels are not.
That does not mean baseball fans should hit the snooze button until the Dodgers open postseason play. Here are nine questions to keep in mind between now and Clayton Kershaw’s first pitch in Game 1 of the National League division series:
1. If the Dodgers are already in and the Angels are out, which is the team to root for this weekend?
The Pittsburgh Pirates. The team last appeared in the postseason in 1992, with an un-enhanced Barry Bonds in left field. The Pirates never had a winning record between that season and this one.
The Pirates and Cincinnati Reds are poised to meet in the National League wild-card game. The teams also play this weekend, and whichever wins the three-game series gets home field for the one-game wild-card playoff. It would be cruel for the good fans of Pittsburgh to wait 21 years for a postseason game, then face the possibility of the Pirates being knocked out of the playoffs without a single home game.
2. What does the rest of the NL playoff field look like?
The teams are set, but the matchups could go down to Sunday. The team with the best record plays the wild-card winner in the first round, and the remaining division winners play each other. The St. Louis Cardinals are 94-65, the Atlanta Braves are also 94-65, and the Dodgers were 91-67 heading into their game at San Francisco. The Pirates could force a tie in the NL Central in the unlikely event they sweep the Reds and the Cardinals are swept by the Chicago Cubs.
3. And who is in the AL playoffs?
The Boston Red Sox, Detroit Tigers and Oakland Athletics are the division champions. The Tampa Bay Rays, Cleveland Indians and Texas Rangers remain in contention for the two wild-card spots.
4. What could be the most dramatic moment this weekend?
Josh Hamilton getting the hit that eliminates the Rangers from playoff contention. Hamilton defected to the Angels last winter, then told Rangers fans they did not live in a “true baseball town.” He was booed mercilessly in his return to Texas last April, but he could get the last laugh. Hamilton hit .204 in April and .224 in the first half. He is batting .284 in the second half, including .321 in September.
5. If a team can choose between resting its stars or fighting for home-field advantage, what is the best choice?
Rest, and with it the reduced risk of injury. In baseball’s postseason, there is no pronounced home-field edge. All four first-round series went to the maximum five games last October; the team with home-field advantage lost three.
6. If the Rays host the AL wild-card game, how many fans will show up?
A sellout would not be guaranteed. The Rays list their stadium capacity at 34,078. Their last home playoff game drew 28,299. They finished last in the major leagues in attendance this season — below even the Miami Marlins — with 1.5 million tickets sold.
7. Why would Commissioner Bud Selig be secretly rooting for the Rays and Indians?
That would mean more teams in the playoffs from the bottom 10 in payroll than from the top 10. The Indians, Athletics, Pirates and Rays rank in the bottom 10. The Dodgers, Red Sox and Tigers rank in the top 10.
That would give the retiring Selig the evidence he needs to say that revenue sharing is plentiful enough that any team can build a winner, and that teams that fail to deliver over repeated years ought to blame ownership and management, not just economics.
8. Assume the Indians make the playoffs. In addition to the Angels, which 10 teams have failed to make the playoffs since 2009?
The Cubs, Chicago White Sox, Colorado Rockies, Houston Astros, Kansas City Royals, Marlins, New York Mets, San Diego Padres, Seattle Mariners, and Toronto Blue Jays.
9. With the New York Yankees out of the playoffs, which team becomes the one America loves to hate?
The Dodgers, of course. They might wear a blue cap, but a $200-million payroll gets you a black hat.