By NOAH TRISTER
Shortly after noon in Atlanta, Nick Senzel of the Cincinnati Reds slapped the first pitch from Max Fried to right field for a single, beginning a day of baseball unlike any that had come before.
Eight postseason games, all starting in a span of around 10 hours.
“This is like September Madness,” Houston manager Dusty Baker said. “It’s going to be mad.”
Wednesday indeed had a bit of an NCAA Tournament feel, with a smorgasbord of playoff games starting early in the afternoon and lasting long into the night as the Yankees finished off Cleveland early Thursday in the longest nine-inning game in major league history.
For much of the 20th century, baseball had a maximum of seven games in any single postseason. Wednesday alone had more than that, the result of an expanded field for 2020 that included 16 teams after a regular season shortened to 60 games by the coronavirus pandemic.
“Our country needs it. It’s very therapeutic,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said before his team’s night game against Milwaukee. “It’s a diversion.”
“September Madness” included baseball’s version of a buzzer beater — a walk-off hit by Atlanta’s Freddie Freeman — and two series victories by lower seeds. Although the Houston Astros and New York Yankees may not fit the public’s definition of a Cinderella.
The last two games went well past 1 a.m. Eastern time, and by the end of the night, baseball’s Sweet 16 was reduced by three after the Minnesota Twins, Toronto Blue Jays and Cleveland Indians were eliminated. The final game of the night pitted the Los Angeles Dodgers, who had the game’s best record in the regular season, against the sub.-500 Brewers. It was the type of matchup that invites criticism for this expanded playoff format, and there’s no telling when or if the sport will have a day like Wednesday again.
For one day, however, it was quite a novelty, and the Reds were ready when they came to the plate against Atlanta. They swung at the game’s first three pitches, hitting two singles to put men on first and third with nobody out.
Then the Braves escaped the jam with no scoring, a sign of things to come.
It took a while for anyone anywhere to score. When the first run came, it was in Houston’s game at Minnesota, which started about an hour after the Braves and Reds. Kyle Tucker drove in a run for the Astros with a fourth-inning single.
That was around the time the Miami Marlins and Chicago Cubs were getting started. In a season when ballparks have been off limits to fans, this at least was a feast of baseball on television.
“It’s cool. I’ve been in my office a lot, kind of getting ready, with the games on, flipping back and forth and seeing what’s going on in the league,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said prior to his team’s night game at Cleveland. “One of the things of this expanded playoffs this year, I’m sure the real baseball fans are in a little bit of heaven today, getting to see all these games.”
Atlanta and Cincinnati remained scoreless into extra innings, which meant at one point, five games were in progress simultaneously. In addition to Braves-Reds, Astros-Twins and Cubs-Marlins, the Chicago White Sox were playing at Oakland, and Tampa Bay was hosting Toronto.
The first game to end was Houston’s 3-1 victory over the Twins — Minnesota’s 18th consecutive postseason loss. The Braves finally beat the Reds a little while later, when Freeman singled in the 13th inning to bring home the game’s only run.
That was the first postseason game to be scoreless after 11 innings, and Cincinnati’s Trevor Bauer became the first pitcher in postseason history to strike out 12 batters while allowing no runs, no walks and two or fewer hits.
The next game to end was Miami’s 5-1 victory. The Marlins have never lost a postseason series. They memorably won the final two games of the 2003 NL Championship Series at Wrigley Field, and they began this best-of-three matchup with the Cubs in similar fashion.
The White Sox are also facing elimination after Oakland’s 5-3 victory forced Game 3 of that series. It will be another winner-take-all game for the Athletics, who since 2000 have gone 0-6 in Game 5 of the Division Series and 0-3 in wild-card games.
The Blue Jays would have liked to play a winner-take-all game, but the Rays denied them the chance. Hunter Renfroe hit a grand slam, powering Tampa Bay to an 8-2 victory that ended that series.
San Diego’s first postseason appearance since 2006 is off to a rough start. The Padres left injured pitching standouts Mike Clevinger and Dinelson Lamet off the roster. Then they gave up four runs in the first inning of a 7-4 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals.
The night games brought their own type of drama. The Yankees and Indians played the longest nine-inning game in baseball history — 4 hours, 50 minutes, not counting another 76 minutes in rain delays. New York scored twice in the top of the ninth to win 10-9.
Not long after that, Kenley Jansen struck out Christian Yelich to close out a 4-2 win for the Dodgers — and bring this historic day of baseball to a close.
AP Baseball Writer Ronald Blum and AP Sports Writers Beth Harris and Kristie Rieken contributed to this report.