WASHINGTON — David Freese was talking about playing baseball in October, which he knows a thing or two about. It’s really not that much different than other months, he was saying, and he sounded entirely convincing, as if he actually believes it, which he may well, even if his premise would dull the luster on the shiniest part of his legacy.
Here’s the thing: Freese, the 2011 World Series hero in St. Louis and on Sunday a vital cog in a stirring Los Angeles Dodgers rally, was only addressing a sliver of what comprises October — an individual’s ability to perform in the month. Those individual performances are sewn together to craft games, and those games are linked to build series, and those series ultimately determine what October really is about, because if not for his teams winning, Freese’s grand Octobers would be nothing more than footnotes.
On Monday, baseball will bequeath its fans a historic opportunity to witness playoff winning. For just the sixth time ever, four teams will face postseason elimination on the same day. Just once have four series ended the same day. Never before have four teams played at home in do-or-die games on the same day, as they will Monday. Starting at 1:05 p.m. ET, a bounty of the most meaningful kind of baseball will be played. If Friday was great — four playoff games on the same day — this is great spiked with a shot of urgency.
Each series comes packed with its own cache of intrigue:
• After winning Game 2 in Los Angeles, the Washington Nationals returned home, rode a superlative Anibal Sanchez start for five innings and then utterly melted down during a seven-run sixth-inning deluge by the Dodgers, who won 10-4. Now the Nationals turn to Max Scherzer — their three-time Cy Young winner who was scheduled to start Game 3 but was pushed back because he pitched in relief in Game 2 — to try to keep the Dodgers from a fourth consecutive National League Championship Series. L.A. counters with Rich Hill, who has thrown only 5⅔ innings since the middle of June. First pitch: 6:40 p.m. ET.
• For 24 outs Sunday, the St. Louis Cardinals blanked the Atlanta Braves‘ offense. Then Cardinals closer Carlos Martinez imploded in the ninth inning, and the Braves filched a 3-1 victory and a 2-1 lead in the best-of-five series. Atlanta manager Brian Snitker did not announce his starter for Game 4, which begins at 3:07 p.m. ET from Busch Stadium. The logical candidate: left-hander Dallas Keuchel, who would be going on three days’ rest. Keuchel’s last start on short rest came Oct. 6, 2015, when he threw six shutout innings in Houston’s blanking of the New York Yankees in the American League wild-card game.
• Speaking of the Yankees, they take a 2-0 lead to Minnesota with their highest-ceiling pitcher, Luis Severino, on the mound, and game time at 8:40 p.m. ET. The Twins have lost 15 consecutive playoff games, dating back to Oct. 6, 2004. A dozen of them have come against the Yankees. The 101-win Twins looked overmatched in the series’ first two games, getting outscored 18-6.
• The day’s first game features the best pitching matchup: Houston starter Zack Greinke vs. ex-Astros starter Charlie Morton. Tampa Bay is in the same position as the Twins: behind 2-0 and staring at an intimidating opponent. Perhaps the Astros aren’t quite as menacing without Justin Verlander or Gerrit Cole on the mound, as they had in Games 1 and 2, but the Rays face a pretty grim reality: Even if they can take Games 3 and 4 at Tropicana Field, the prospect of fully rested Cole and Verlander available for a Game 5 in Houston is at best daunting and at worst unfair.
The history of four same-day clinch possibilities started Oct. 9, 1981, when MLB, fresh off a player strike, instituted division series for one year. Only the Oakland A’s clinched that day, with the rest of the series stretching to five games. On Oct. 6, 1995, the first year of the wild card, the Indians and Reds finished off sweeps for a 50% hit rate.
Only Oct. 5, 1996, has produced the magic of four clinches in a day. Atlanta and St. Louis finished off sweeps to advance to the NLCS. The Yankees and Baltimore moved on to the ALCS in what would be the first year of the Yankees’ four-championships-in-five-seasons dynasty.
After three of four teams clinched Oct. 9, 1999, baseball waited more than a decade for another similar opportunity. On Oct. 11, 2012, Detroit was the only clincher. Among the teams that stayed alive: Baltimore, San Francisco — which would go on to win the World Series — and, yes, the Nationals, who were making their first postseason appearance since moving to Washington.
On the next day, the Nationals held a 7-5 lead with three outs remaining. St. Louis — yup, the other NL team facing elimination Monday — scored four runs in the top of the ninth, vanquished the Nationals and started a postseason series losing streak that stood at four entering this October.
If Scherzer resembles his Game 2 relief self rather than the one who surrendered a pair of home runs in the wild-card game, that series would move back to Los Angeles and get awfully interesting, especially with Stephen Strasburg slated to start Game 5. The Cardinals face the same situation: If rookie Dakota Hudson can outduel Keuchel (or perhaps Julio Teheran), the Cardinals can turn to ace Jack Flaherty on full rest in a win-or-go-home Game 5.
The beauty of October is that for all the what-ifs, all the maybe-it-could-bes, all the planning and scheming, it is a month of in-the-moment decision-making that has no regard for best-laid plans. It is a top-flight starter fumbling and his offense coming to the rescue. It is a middling starter going seven shutout innings. It is the improbable, the unthinkable — and rather often, too, the expected.
On Monday, it is four games, all of which can end the season of the team hosting them with, according to Caesars Sportsbook, a four-team parlay bet on all series ending today holding 11-1 odds. Wall-to-wall baseball is never a bad thing. Wall-to-wall baseball, in October, with so much at stake? With apologies to David Freese: October is different, and thank goodness for that.