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MLB playoffs on tap after season of extraordinary numbers

Houston Astros pitcher Gerrit Cole had 326 strikeout this season, the most by an American League pitcher since Nolan Ryan in 1977.
Houston Astros pitcher Gerrit Cole had 326 strikeout this season, the most by an American League pitcher since Nolan Ryan in 1977.Ted S. Warren/Associated Press/Associated Press

It was a regular season of extremes for Major League Baseball, in the standings and on the stat sheets. For the first time, four teams reached 100 victories. But for only the second time, four teams had 100 losses.

The Houston Astros earned home-field advantage throughout the postseason after posting the majors’ best record: 107-55. The Los Angeles Dodgers (106), the New York Yankees (103) and the Minnesota Twins (101) also exceeded the 100-win mark.

The Astros have come full circle: After stumbling to at least 100 losses each season from 2011 to 2013, they now have a streak of three seasons with at least 100 wins. Perhaps inspired by that example, the Detroit Tigers (114 losses), the Baltimore Orioles (108), the Miami Marlins (105) and the Kansas City Royals (103) have all embarked on long rebuilding projects. Only one other season (2002) included four teams with 100 defeats.

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Four playoff teams from last season failed to make it back to October: the Chicago Cubs, the Cleveland Indians, the Colorado Rockies and the Red Sox, who won the 2018 World Series but fell to 84-78. The Red Sox had the majors’ highest payroll this season but now intend to cut more than $30 million to reset their luxury-tax penalties. They are also seeking a new general manager after firing Dave Dombrowski, their president of baseball operations, early this month.

The Red Sox’ struggle extended baseball’s record streak of seasons without a repeat champion. The 1998-2000 Yankees remain the last repeat World Series winners; the San Francisco Giants won three championships this decade, but none consecutively.

“To win the World Series, it takes a lot out of you, it does,” said Bruce Bochy, the retiring manager of the Giants, before playing the Red Sox this month. “Of course, there’s a lot of things that go with that — the celebrating, and I think the stress it can put on some pitchers, even the players, mentally and physically. And so you see this a lot.”

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The Yankees, who won the American League East for the first time since 2012, are not used to waiting so long without at least appearing in the World Series; they have not been there since winning it in 2009. The franchise has endured longer droughts between pennants, but for numerologists, this could be the Yankees’ first calendar decade without a World Series appearance since the 1910s.

To avoid that fate, the Yankees must first beat the Twins in a division series matchup between the two teams that hit the most home runs in major league history (307 for the Twins, 306 for the Yankees). The Astros will face the winner of Wednesday’s wild-card game in Oakland between the Athletics and the Tampa Bay Rays.

Los Angeles starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw is part of a strong rotation for the Dodgers.
Los Angeles starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw is part of a strong rotation for the Dodgers.Gregory Bull/Associated Press/Associated Press

In the National League, the Dodgers will try to become the first team since the 1923 Yankees to return to the World Series after losing two in a row. The Dodgers’ division series opponent will be the Washington Nationals or the Milwaukee Brewers, who meet in Washington on Tuesday in the NL wild-card game. The St. Louis Cardinals — who clinched the NL Central title on Sunday — will face the Atlanta Braves in the other NL division series.

The Dodgers set their franchise record for victories by beating the Giants on Sunday, and believe they are poised for their first championship since 1988. That is the longest drought of any team in the field that has won a title, though three teams — Milwaukee, Tampa Bay and Washington — are seeking their first.

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“I think our depth is as good as it’s ever been,” the infielder and outfielder Chris Taylor said this month. “Top to bottom, this is probably the strongest team that we’ve had, and I think our pitching is stronger as well — arguably the best starting rotation we’ve ever had.”

While the Dodgers have good reason to trust in Walker Buehler, Clayton Kershaw and Hyun-Jin Ryu, no team boasts a better big three than the Astros, with Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke, who combined to go 59-16 this season.

Verlander and Cole were the first teammates to each record 300 strikeouts since Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling did it for Arizona in 2002. Cole, who earned his 20th victory on Sunday, finished with 326 strikeouts, the most by an AL pitcher since Nolan Ryan in 1977. Strikeouts have risen across the league each season since 2008, with an increase of more than 1,300 this year, to 42,823.

Hitters also obliterated the home run record, bashing 6,776 homers — 671 more than the previous record set in 2017. The New York Mets’ Pete Alonso hit the most this season with 53, setting a major league record for rookies. The Mets were one of 15 teams that either set or tied their single-season record for home runs.

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For all the gaudy numbers, though, there was also this: zero. That is the number of intentional walks issued by the Astros, while every other team allowed at least 10. Intentional walks have been officially tracked since 1955, and the Astros’ staff became the first to go a full season without one.