PITTSBURGH – If you look closely at the schedules for Major League Baseball’s schedule for the final day of regular season, you might notice all games start within a 20-minute span of each other.
Fifteen head-to-head games across four different time zones will all begin around 3 p.m. central time Sunday. First pitch is scheduled right at the top of the hour for some, a few begin around 20 minutes later.
It wasn’t until recently, 2015 to be exact, that this became the norm in Major League Baseball. With more teams entering the postseason pool in recent years, there are oftentimes circumstances in which a team may be able to tie or jump ahead in postseason seeding on the final day of action.
“If a game impacts another game, they’re all occurring at the same time, so no team would be put into a lame-duck situation because their fate already had been decided by an earlier result,” said Tony Petitti, MLB chief operating officer via the announcement in 2015.
“If we do have games coming down to the wire, we want to make sure we maximize that day.”
Coincidentally, one such “lame-duck” situation came in Sept. 28, 2014, the final day of the 2014 MLB season. The Cardinals had yet to clinch the National League Central, but carried a Magic Number of 1 into the final day. The Pittsburgh Pirates, in a rare postseason push, had a chance to force a first-place tie in the NL Central if they won and the Cardinals lost on the final day.
The Pirates started a game three hours earlier than the Cardinals were scheduled to play. Meanwhile, St. Louis had West Coast matchup against the Arizona Diamondbacks to end the 2014 campaign, an uncommon setup to end the regular season.
Pittsburgh fell into a funk and lost its regular season finale, 4-1 against the Cincinnati Reds. It happened in 2 hours and 46 minutes, meaning the game had been completed before the Cardinals were scheduled to play the Diamondbacks.
Because of the Pittsburgh loss, the Cardinals mathematically became the 2014 NL Central Division champions. They learned their fate about 20 minutes before they had to take the field for the regular season finale in Arizona and they changed their strategy to approaching Game 162. As a result, St. Louis scratched ace Adam Wainwright from making the start and rested many regular hitters.
St. Louis went on to win the finale, 1-0, which gave the Cardinals a two-game lead in the division to finish the season. Pittsburgh had at least secured at least one postseason spot, whether through a Wild Card Game or the NL Central Division, entering the final day. However, the loss guaranteed a Wild Card Game, and the Pirates were eliminated from postseason two days later in the former winner-take-all format.
If the Cardinals and Pirates had exact opposite fortunes on Sept. 28, 2014, that would have led to a one-game tiebreaker the next day in St. Louis. And who knows what might have happened after that. Wainwright probably would have started Game 162 and not been available. The Cardinals might have dropped their regular season finale, the tiebreaker game and the NL Wild Card Game in three days to be eliminated from the postseason. It never got that far, but it would sure add a lot of drama to the postseason picture.
While MLB never disclosed specific scenarios leading up to this change, the Cardinals and Pirates’ approach to their 2014 regular season finales (and the scenarios that could have followed) likely set the stage for Game 162s now beginning in the same general timeframe.
Just think of what that might have meant in 2011. The St. Louis Cardinals and Tampa Bay Rays pulled off improbable season comebacks to clinch the NL and AL Wild Card seeds on the final night of the regular season, eliminating the Atlanta Braves and the Boston Red Sox. All of those game began within the same hour due to the separation of just one time zone, but the decision-making could become much more important if teams were consistently scoreboard-watching with some meaningful seeding on the line.
To a degree, this had an impact on the Cardinals in 2019. The Cardinals had a one-game edge over the Milwaukee Brewers for the NL Central heading into the final day. St. Louis and Milwaukee started at the same time, and the Cardinals turned to reliable starter Jack Flaherty in the regular season finale.
St. Louis didn’t have the opportunity to assess whether to rest Flaherty to prepare for postseason, but used a lineup of regulars to win and secure the Central Division. A loss, meanwhile, could have set up a division tiebrekaer with the Brewers, who were eliminated from postseason quickly in the National League Wild Card Game.
As for the 2022 season, all postseason spots and seeding were clinched by every team’s Game 161, so there were no scenarios of win or miss playoffs like the schedule format could generate.
The Toronto Blue Jays and Baltimore Orioles, however, are scheduled to play two games Wednesday to close out the 2022 regular season due to a weather postponement Tuesday. The early game will start around 11:10 a.m. ET, then Game 162 around the hour all others are starting.
The Cardinals don’t have too much to play for on Wednesday, but the new format at least gave the Padres and Phillies a chance to control their destiny prior to the final day. Philadelphia will play St. Louis as the No. 6 seed and San Diego will play the New York Mets as the No. 5 seed.
Happy Game 162 Day. On deck: Postseason.