Welcome to the longest and tightest pennant race in baseball history

John Romano | In every one of the last 10 seasons, some team got off to a slow start but eventually made the playoffs. That's a problem in a 60-game season.
Rays, right, and Houston Astros players line up for player introductions just prior to Game 3 of the American League Division Series in October at Tropicana Field.
Rays, right, and Houston Astros players line up for player introductions just prior to Game 3 of the American League Division Series in October at Tropicana Field. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published July 18, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — This is neither criticism, nor lament. Although by season’s end, it may feel that way to some unlucky fanbase.

One or more teams will get cheated by baseball’s 60-game season. It may not be inevitable, but it is highly likely. Recent history practically screams it.

In 2012, the Tigers were 28-32 after the season’s first 60 games. They went on to win the American League pennant. In 2018, the Dodgers were 30-30. They won the National League pennant. Just last year, the Nationals were 27-33 and six games out of the wild-card picture. They won the World Series.

Every season in the last decade has offered similar evidence of a team getting off to a slow start and eventually winning a division or a wild card. It isn’t just common, it’s consistent.

Related: 60 numbers to know about the 2020 MLB season

The Cubs and Indians in 2017. The Dodgers and Blue Jays in 2016. The Blue Jays and Rangers in 2015. The Dodgers in 2013 and ’14. The Giants and Phillies in 2010.

And, yes, your Rays in 2011.

The team that provided the greatest single night of baseball in franchise history with Evan Longoria’s walkoff home run in the 12th inning of Game 162 against the Yankees was 31-29 and in relative limbo on June 6.

At that moment, Tampa Bay was in third place in the AL East. The Rays were behind the Red Sox and Tigers and tied with the Mariners in the wild-card race. Had the season ended after 60 games, Rays fans would not have seen their team finish in a rush at 60-42, including winning six of their final seven, to overtake the Red Sox for the wild card on the season’s final day.

Related: Experts say the Rays are World Series-bound. Do you agree?

But, like I said, this is not a criticism of baseball’s 2020 schedule. The pandemic made a shortened season a necessity. My point is simply that baseball has always been a game that has rewarded tenacity more than randomness.

A bad team can’t fake it for 162 games, but a good team can stumble in a 60-game stretch.

So does that make this season more unnerving for a team expected to do well?

“Yes, it welcomes more volatility,” said Rays general manager Erik Neander. “But it doesn’t scare me. I don’t have any concerns. Our group believes we’re good, and we’re going to go out and compete. In a 60-game season versus 162? Yeah, crazy stuff can happen. But you know where crazy stuff really happens? Over a best-of-5 and a best-of-7 (postseason series).

“To me, 60 games will still be enough time for us to go out and compete and, if we’re good enough, we’ll play more than 60 games.”

Related: 2020 MLB preview for every team in 60 words

So how random is 60 games? Well, the Rays won 96 games last season, which is the second-most in franchise history. And yet from May 31 to Aug. 5, Tampa Bay went 30-30. That means one of the best teams Tampa Bay has ever seen had a .500 record for more than two months.

That’s why the 2020 season will have a different feel. It won’t just be the expanded rosters or the universal DH or the expedited summer camp. This will basically be the longest and tightest pennant race in baseball history.

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On July 23 last season, there were 15 teams either leading a division or within three games of the wild card. On July 23 this year, all 30 teams will be tied for a postseason spot.

That lessens the margin for error. That means every loss is nearly three times more damaging than in a normal season.

Related: Fewer games should mean more Morton, Snell and Glasnow for the Rays

For the Rays, there is some consolation in that. Because going into July 24 last season, the Rays were 2.5 games out of the wild-card picture, Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow were on the injured list and, 12 days later, Yonny Chirinos would join them.

“We went through that last summer with injuries left and right and pitchers dropping in and out,” Neander said. “We had that stretch in late August where we were just scraping by and getting creative. That’s the kind of stuff you’re going to deal with this year, almost certainly. You’re going to have guys dropping out because of positive tests.

“You’ll have to be adaptable and have the mindset that breeds confidence as you do that. All the attrition we experienced last year will serve us well.”

John Romano can be reached at Follow @romano_tbtimes.