The Best Pennant Race Nobody Saw

Fans of the San Francisco Giants had a nervous weekend but were grateful to see Jonathan Sanchez and the team’s deep bullpen shut down the San Diego Padres and win the division at AT&T Park on the last day of the season. Padre fans, on the other hand, were disappointed to see a team that surprised many fall just short of forcing a 163rd and potentially even 164th game. However, it is not clear whether any fans outside of California cared much or were even aware of what evolved into a great race with an exciting conclusion. Both teams had strong comebacks at different points in the season. The Giants seemed to have it wrapped up going into the final game of the season and then were on the verge of an embarrassing collapse. The two teams played exciting well pitched games against each other all season long. Both managers got the most out of offenses that featured no real stars.

Baseball, particularly National League baseball, on the west coast seems awfully far away from New York and Boston which continue to dominate the baseball media and thus receives little national attention. The Giants and Padres did not come to Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park this season, nor have they dominated recent off-seasone headlines with big trades and bidding wars over free agents, so it seems that few fans were aware of the race. Instead, the Giants and Padres spent the last twelve months bringing along top rookies such as Buster Posey and Mat Latos, giving a second life to veterans on whom most teams had given up like Aubrey Huff and Miguel Tejada and playing a very different king of baseball than the AL East.

The Giants, for example, had four homegrown starters all of whom were 27 or younger who combined for 744 innings with ERAs between 3.00 and 3.43. Even given that the AL East is a much tougher division in which to pitch, there still is not really pitching like that in New York or Boston. The Rays come close, but after David Price and Matt Garza, the backend of the Rays rotation was not as good as the Giants.

The Padres are even less well known than the Giants with Miguel Tejada and David Eckstein the only players who might be known to an east coast fan. A third, Tony Gwynn, is a household name, but only because of his father.

Offensively, west coast baseball is not as good as New York and Boston style baseball, but it is also a very different game in the NL West. The power and patience game which the Yankees and Red Sox play so well is not used by the Padres and the Giants. Aubrey Huff led the Giants with 26 home runs and 83. Huff’s 26 home runs would have been fifth on the Yankees. Overall, the Giants finished sixth in the NL in home runs and 13th in walks. The Padres were 12th in home runs and seventh in walks. This type of offense is not as efficient as the Yankees or Red Sox, but it made for a very exciting pennant race.

The outsized role played by the Yankees and Red Sox in the national media market, the absence of any well known stars, other than Tim Lincecum, on either the Padres or Giants, and early departure of the Joe Torre led Los Angeles Dodgers from the race, contributed to making the just completed NL West race one of the best pennant races nobody ever noticed, but there is another component to the story as well. Great pennant races in general have been one of the casualties of the multi-tiered playoff system.

The pennant race, for much of the 20th Century, had been probably the most exciting thing in baseball, as well as something unique to the sport. Great races such as those in the NL in1908, 1951 or 1964 or in the AL in 1948, 1949 or 1967 often kept fans in at least two cities engaged, excited and nervous for a month or more. When the LCS was added in 1969, some of this was lost, but there were still exciting races such as the NL West in 1993 and the AL East in 1978. The addition of the wild card changed all this. Pennant races simply do not feel the same when in the current playoff structure.

There is no way the Bucky Dent game would have been so dramatic if the loser would have won the wild card, rather than gone home. Similarly, the last weekend of 1993, when the Giants could not manage to beat the Dodgers would have meant a lot less if the Giants had gone into the series guaranteed of at least the wild card. Additionally, because even division winners have to win three series to become champions, winning a division feels much more like the beginning than the end of something. The wild card is probably necessary now that there are 30 teams in baseball; and the LDS can be very dramatic, but there has been a cost to this; and that cost has been exciting and meaningful pennant races.