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It Was Clinch Night

PHOENIX, ARIZONA - SEPTEMBER 30: Arizona Diamondbacks players celebrate in the Chase Field pool after clinching a National League Wild Card playoff spot after the game against the Houston Astros on September 30, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images)
Chris Coduto/Getty Images

It was an evening of champagne and regret across Major League Baseball, as five (I don't want to say "lucky," as that word mostly only applies to the Marlins) teams punched their tickets to the postseason, and three woebegone clubs saw their dreams dashed on the rocks of mediocrity. It was slightly disappointing for those who were hoping for full-on chaos to wait until Sunday—and possibly even Monday—but five clinches in a span of 90 minutes was a satisfying sequence nonetheless. It was one of those nights where even a team that lost ended up drunk in the pool.

We'll go in broadly chronological order. The Marlins were the first to lock down a wild card when they closed out a 7-3 win over the Pirates. It is extremely funny that the Fish got in with a run differential of negative-53—worse than many teams on the outside looking in, including one that just fired its manager—and will be even funnier if they manage to make some noise in the postseason. Historically, they have a way of doing that. In their only two non-COVID-shortened-year playoff appearances, they've gone all the way.

These Marlins will probably not do that! They are fairly anonymous. But they're hot at the right time, going 17-9 in September. And they have a knack for being on the right side of close games, going an absurd 35-16 in games that were either decided by one run or that went to extra innings. They have the potential to make someone's life very miserable in October.

Owner Bruce Sherman managed to strike a false note after the clinch. "We've been living for six years with ‘Let's Go Mets' in our stadium all the time," Sherman said. "Mets didn't finish. Yankees didn't finish. San Diego didn't finish. Payroll's three times ours and look what we did." Well, who controls that, Bruce? Spend some more, man, and maybe you could be doing this more often.

A few minutes later, the Texas Rangers clinched their first postseason berth since 2017 with a 6-1 win in Seattle. The Rangers had a wild year—a historically good start, followed by a midseason swoon—and did things the hard way, dropping the first two games of this series to the desperate Mariners. But 161 proved enough, finally. "This is what I came back for," said Bruce Bochy, who spent three years away from managing. They may or may not have Max Scherzer back soon.

That Mariners loss clinched a berth for the Blue Jays, who had lost to Tampa earlier in the day. Though the Jays have two playoff appearances in the last three seasons, they haven't won a game since 2016. Scoreboard watching had gotten a little old for Toronto manager John Schneider; at least now he gets one day off from it. "It's hectic, it's stressful and all that kind of stuff," Schneider said. "But this is why you play. It's exciting, it's up and down, back and forth, all that kind of stuff." Also exciting: the playoffs, where every team controls its own fate.

Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo has also spoken about the stress of having to keep track of the several other teams in the race. "‘I look at the scoreboard about 50–60 times a game," he said Friday. On Saturday, he saw something he liked: In the middle of Arizona's game against Houston, the Reds fell to the Cardinals, clinching a wild card for the D-backs. The Astros would go on to win this game 1-0, which led to the charming sight of two very happy teams on one field, both trying not to celebrate just yet.

The Astros' celebration was muted, this being their seventh straight playoff appearance. "Keep your eye on the prize," Justin Verlander said. The Diamondbacks' celebration was merely delayed—they didn't think it right to immediately start jumping around after losing a ballgame. But the champagne was on ice back in the clubhouse, and before long they brought it out to the pool in right-center.

Of course, all this joy had to come at the expense of someone's pain. The Reds will probably be OK, having stayed in the race for months longer than anyone expected from them. They're young, they're fast, and they were playing with house money—which the Castellini family obviously prefers to spending their own money.

It hurts a lot more for the Cubs, who just three weeks ago were basically shoo-ins for the postseason, but more or less have crapped the bed since then. "We haven't played our best baseball down the stretch," deadpanned manager David Ross. It was a weird season for Chicago, which wasn't expected to compete but forced the front office's hand with a July surge that turned them into deadline buyers, and whose underlying numbers indicate a team that was better than its record. With some big decisions to make, the Cubs could look very different next year.

And then there's the Mariners, who never seem to look very different. After breaking their playoff drought last year, not a single free agent signed over the winter stuck around for the full season. After their elimination on Saturday, catcher Cal Raleigh called out ownership and the front office for not spending more to put the team over the top.

"We’ve been right at this 90-win mark for a few years now. We’ve just got to get better. Something’s got to change," Raleigh said. “We’ve got to commit to winning, we have to commit to going and getting those players you see other teams going out, going for it, getting big-time pitchers, getting big-time hitters. We have to do that to keep up. I think we’ve done a great job of growing some players here and within the farm system, but sometimes you have to buy, and that’s just the name of the game. We’ll see what happens this offseason. Hopefully we can add some players and become a better team.”

As if Raleigh couldn't be clearer, he then mentioned the Rangers, who were at that moment popping corks in the visitors' clubhouse. “They’ve added more than anybody else, and you saw where it got them this year."

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