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Having survived regular season sprint, MLB contenders prepare for postseason marathon

Baseball played on during the novel coronavirus pandemic and has nearly reached the postseason. (Mark J. Terrill/AP)

The 2020 baseball season was forged from plague and strife — a once-in-a-century pandemic and a protracted labor war — and it ends this weekend with its central mission, identifying a playoff field, having been met. It may not have been a fully satisfying endeavor compared with years past, but against all odds, it soon will be in the books.

At 60 games, it will have been the shortest season in Major League Baseball’s modern history. It will have been played entirely without fans. Navigating it successfully has required games to be postponed or moved because of coronavirus outbreaks, social justice protests, hurricanes and wildfires. New rules were implemented on the fly in the name of safety and expediency. The schedule, a constant work in progress, was a Sudoku puzzle in which one bad outcome could ruin entire rows and columns of carefully plotted data points.

The reward for all of that resourcefulness, adaptability and cooperation is a one-of-its-kind postseason that will require more of the same. Beginning Tuesday, baseball’s shortest season gives way to its largest playoffs ever: 16 teams, four rounds, a maximum of 65 games, the bulk of it contained within protective bubbles in Southern California and Texas. The World Series that begins Oct. 20 will be the first in history played at a neutral site.

A guide to the 2020 MLB postseason: Playoff format, schedule and what you need to know

The 16-team format, up from the usual 10, has created some scattered griping — chiefly because the winningest teams gain little benefit when all 16 teams are slotted into a best-of-three opening round — and some unusual potential scenarios.

Over the course of the past nine weeks, if perhaps grudgingly, we have gotten used to a handful of novel rule changes, some of which — the universal designated hitter, 28-man rosters — will continue in October. The extra-innings rule, in which each half-inning starts with a runner on second base, will not. Baseball seeks to avoid doubleheaders at all costs in the postseason, but if there are any, they will be played at nine innings per game, not seven.

However, when MLB released its postseason schedule, it contained a wrinkle that surprised many in the sport — and one that, despite the seemingly subtle nature, presents a massive strategic change that could transform these playoffs. That wrinkle is the elimination of mid-series days off in the two rounds preceding the World Series.

In past years, the division series have featured days off between Games 2 and 3 and between Games 4 and 5, while the league championship series had them between Games 2 and 3 and between Games 5 and 6.

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Their purpose was to allow for travel between cities and to stretch the postseason across the entire month of October (and occasionally into November). But the strategic effect was to permit teams to concentrate pitching duties among an ever-smaller number of hurlers — because the built-in days off facilitated more frequent outings. Teams could effectively deploy a three- or four-man starting rotation, even bringing those pitchers back in relief between starts, and rely on a handful of ace relievers over and over.

But this year’s postseason schedule features an opening round played across three straight days, a division series round played across five and a league championship series round played across seven — changes made largely to squeeze the extra round of games into an October schedule mostly dictated by television networks. Only the World Series will retain its traditional days off between Games 2 and 3 and between Games 5 and 6 despite there being no need for travel. In the end, the champion will have played as many as 22 games across as few as 29 days.

“If you think you’re just going to lean on three starters and throw the same three or four relievers every game,” Minnesota Twins Manager Rocco Baldelli told reporters, “I think you’re mistaken.”

In practical terms, it means a team can’t start its ace twice (in Games 1 and 5) in the division series without bringing him back on short rest. And a similar, altered calculus awaits in the LCS round.

To see how dramatic a change that could be, consider the 2019 Washington Nationals, who won the World Series while playing 17 games in 30 days during their march to the title — a pace that allowed them to streamline their pitcher usage and cover 83 percent of their postseason innings with four starters (Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin and Aníbal Sánchez) and two relievers (Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson).

And the Nationals hardly invented the concept of the shrunken postseason pitching staff. The year before, the Boston Red Sox got 75 percent of their postseason innings from their top four starters and two relievers. The 2016 Cleveland Indians got 81 percent of their innings from three starters and three relievers.

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Under the 2020 format, it seems inconceivable that a pitcher can pull off what right-handed reliever Brandon Morrow did for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2017, when he appeared in 14 of his team’s 15 postseason games, including all seven World Series matchups. Morrow pitched on three consecutive days only once in that postseason — in Games 3, 4 and 5 of the World Series — because those 14 appearances were spread across 27 days; the corresponding games this year would encompass just 23 days.

Likewise, this postseason almost certainly will not see a performance akin to that of Madison Bumgarner in 2014, when the lefty workhorse accounted for 32.9 percent (52⅔ of 160) of the San Francisco Giants’ postseason innings.

Even the deployment of position players may need to be reevaluated under the new format, particularly for older teams. In 2017, seven members of the Houston Astros’ everyday lineup started all 18 of the team’s postseason games, and five of them played every inning. That same year, four Astros pitchers accounted for 68 percent of their postseason innings.

“Playing every day, it’s going to expose [your] depth,” Chicago Cubs Manager David Ross said. “Everybody’s going to have [to use] the full roster.”

Critics of the usual postseason format often complained that a sport played one way for six months — nearly every day, testing a team’s depth as much as its top-end talent — suddenly must be played in an entirely different fashion in October. Last year, for example, the Nationals’ top three starters, Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin, accounted for 40.5 percent of the team’s regular season innings — a figure that rose to a staggering 58.7 percent in the postseason.

Not surprisingly, given the concentration of innings among the game’s best pitchers, scoring has typically declined in October. In 2019, teams scored an average of 4.8 runs in the regular season but just 4.0 in the playoffs.

The 2020 format, with its lack of days off, should remedy those disconnects. This year, scoring could actually increase in October.

“I actually like it,” said Phillies Manager Joe Girardi, who went to the postseason six times as a player and has returned six times as a manager, of the 2020 playoff format. “It tells you the talent of the whole team. And it’s [how we play] for 162 games. . . . And now you have to [keep doing] that.”

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With 16 teams, there is no shortage of compelling story lines, from the familiar — is this finally the year for the Dodgers, who have now won eight straight NL West titles but whose previous seven trips to October ended in disappointment? — to the only-in-2020 variety.

In the latter category are the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals, both of whom entered the weekend holding tenuously to playoff spots despite having endured lengthy shutdowns in July and August after major coronavirus outbreaks — and numerous doubleheaders down the stretch to make up those games. The Toronto Blue Jays, who played their home games in Buffalo because of the Canadian government’s strict quarantine guidelines, clinched a playoff spot Thursday.

By the end of October, knock on a shiny slab of turned maple, baseball will have identified a champion to cap the strangest, most challenging year in the sport’s history. Some will want to affix that title with an asterisk to reduce its historic value, in light of the shortened regular season schedule and the many alterations and adaptations required to get there.

But after surviving a global pandemic, a chaotic sprint of a regular season and a teeming scramble of a postseason — in which a team could play an unprecedented 22 games before it’s over — this year’s champion will be worthy of the crown. And if anyone wants to attach an asterisk, it shouldn’t be to denote the 2020 title as something less than the rest but as something more.

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