Last Friday morning, a full three and a half days after the brutal Game Four ALDS loss and well after the raw sadness of defeat was, I thought, behind me, I found myself sobbing in a dog park.
I had queued up a nerdy, non-baseball podcast (on foreign policy, about as far from baseball as you can get) and set out with my dog for our daily stroll. Catching up on world events seemed like a good way to rejoin the wider world after a week of intense baseball focus. Well wouldn’t you know that the podcast host happened to be a New England native? So of course he needed to open the podcast with some reference to the Red Sox yadda yadda and heart yadda yadda. So there I was in a pre-dawn dog park crying while two Labs and a German Shepherd looked at me quizzically.
I guess the ALDS loss hit me hard.
But what it hasn’t done is lead me to write off the 162 games that came before it.
We’re not angry, we’re disappointed
I’ve seen seasons that are failures. I grew up a Mets fan! I adopted the Devil Rays as my team in 2006 when I moved to the area! We know what a failed season looks like, and this was not it.
We can look at all that was accomplished this year. The Rays handily won the only division in baseball that had four competitive, over .500 teams. And they were good on both sides of the ball: second in runs scores, fourth in wRC+, and also fourth in ERA and fifth in both FIP and xFIP. Their run differential of 206 runs was third in the majors. This was not a team that stumbled into the post season.
If a clairvoyant had told you, back in March, that Tyler Glasnow would blow out his elbow before the All Star Break, that Chris Archer would throw a total of 19 innings, that Nick Anderson would not contribute and Chaz Roe would be out for the season, where would you have predicted this team would finish? I probably would have imagined about 85 wins and maybe, if the luck dragons came our way, a fight for a Wild Card slot. The many times this team won, the many ways they found to win, made 2021 a fun season and, yes, a successful one.
This does not minimize the sting of the first round loss. But this loss — four games in which each team won a blowout and then two games were decided on the last at-bat with a ton of bad luck and bad calls shaping the outcomes — does not negate 162 games of high quality baseball.
Playoffs are a crapshoot
As we see the 107-win Giants lose in the division series and the 106-win Dodgers go down two games to start the NLCS in pursuit of another pennant, it’s clear that baseball playoffs don’t offer many advantages to their top seeds, and that, for better or worse, the team that has proven its mettle over six months can easily lose to a slightly less accomplished team over a short series.
You all probably remember the 2019 World Champion Washington Nationals, but do you remember that they were one inning from losing the Wild Card game when a Brewer outfielder error allowed them to come from behind and win? Had Trent Grisham fielded that ball cleanly would Dave Martinez suddenly have been a terrible manager and the team suddenly have been a failure?
I can’t tell others how to “fan”, of course, but I simply can’t deem a year of sustained great play a failure because of a few unlucky moments over a stretch of four games. I don’t believe that players who come out on top in the playoffs are more clutch, or have more “will to win” or that some managers just can’t manage the postseason.
Sometimes you put Mike Brosseau in to face Aroldis Chapman and he fouls off eight pitches before finding a good one to hit out of the park. Sometimes Hunter Renfroe misplays your RBI triple into a ground rule double and you go on to lose.
Believe me, the ache of loss is real. I can’t look at pictures of Red Sox players celebrating. I can’t even bring myself to watch the ALDS. I’m the person sobbing at the dog park! But I do look forward to moving slowly past that despondency to appreciate a team that overcame all kinds of adversity and overperformed all regular season expectations.
And yes, I will applaud when the 2021 ALE Division banner is hoisted next year.