Everything about the 2020 baseball season is deeply weird and profoundly different, including how the Nationals had to process their 4-1, rain-shortened defeat against the Yankees and newly minted ace Gerrit Cole. Opening Day is usually the first step in a marathon. In a 60-game season, especially at home with Scherzer on the mound, it could be seen as the first stride in a mad dash.
Conventional wisdom, as much as that can be whipped up under present conditions, dictates that every game matters and every loss stings. Baseball players find refuge in tomorrow, but this season is supposedly happening at a high-strung pitch that makes today crucial.
That may have been true Thursday morning. By first pitch Thursday night, the stakes had been altered. Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association agreed to expand the playoffs at the last minute. Now 16 teams, rather than 10, make the postseason — the top two finishers in each of the six divisions, and the two teams in each league with the best record among the remaining also-rans.
The top seeds receive the benefit of playing the entirety of a best-of-three, first-round series at home. But more than half of the teams make the playoffs. Given baseball’s inherent randomness, reaching the postseason, regardless of position, is almost the whole point.
General Manager Mike Rizzo frequently states his roster-building mission is to create a team capable of winning 90 or 91 games every season because over the long haul that will get the Nationals into the playoffs and earn them a ticket to the only dance that matters. Make it to the playoffs often enough, and from that quantity of appearances will someday come a World Series flag. Washington raised its banner Thursday night.
So, then, what is the magic number this year? Rizzo was asked that question Thursday afternoon and, understandably, had no real answer. Just trying to win tonight. And come up with a 30-man roster under the new rules. And replace Juan Soto. And figure out how to make it through a pandemic.
Last season provides a rough answer. By June 4 last year, all teams had played 60 games or thereabouts. Every team with a record of .500 or better would have qualified under this year’s playoff structure. The Cleveland Indians at 30-30, San Diego Padres at 31-30 and Oakland Athletics at 31-30 all would have been in the tournament.
The Nationals were sitting at 27-33 through 60 games after June 4. Even after their now-famous 19-31 start, they would have missed the playoffs by only 3½ games.
The lesson for 2020: Don’t be the worst team in baseball with a historically calamitous bullpen through 50 games, and you will have a chance at the postseason when the final week or two arrives. Despite what the baseball world has been conditioned to think in the rapid run-up to the season, the result of any one regular season game doesn’t matter more in this crazed season, and if anything they probably matter less.
In that context, losing at home with Scherzer on the mound seems like less of a wasted chance for a needed win and more like a standard-issue baseball setback. A deep hole can still be dug out of in time to grab a playoff spot.
For some teams, the additional playoff spots could lead to diminished urgency and alter roster decisions or in-game strategy. Nationals Manager Dave Martinez suggested it would not for Washington. His mantra of going 1-0 everyday, he insisted, would not be changed regardless of the playoff format.
“For me, you want to try to win this division and try to be the top-tier team,” Martinez said. “We’re going to try to win as many games as possible. We want to be one of the top teams. We want to play every game to win, and we’ll see what happens at the end.”
The caveat looming over all of this, of course, is that the spread of the novel coronavirus among players and staff could end up wiping out the season. Nothing is certain. It feels strange to even be trying to figure out what one victory or loss means for a team’s playoff chances. But if rain delays are part of our lives again, what else is there better to do during them?
The Nationals waited 118 minutes for a chance to come back against the Yankees, only for rain to halt the game after 5⅓ innings. It was a loss, but it seemed to matter less than it would have when the long day began.
“We got to come back tomorrow and do it again,” Martinez said.