Dodgers-Padres could be the last great divisional race
The last time a full-season National League West race captured North America's interest and produced the game's two greatest win totals, the division was a much different neighborhood.
On Sunday, Oct. 3, 1993, the Atlanta Braves - then in the NL West - beat the Colorado Rockies at home for their 104th win of the season. A couple thousand miles away at a sun-soaked Dodger Stadium, the Braves-Rockies score illuminated on the scoreboard, the Los Angeles Dodgers routed the San Francisco Giants, who finished in second place and missed the playoffs with 103 wins.
"The Giants lost the pennant, the Giants lost the pennant," wrote Tom Friend for The New York Times, noting it was 42 years to the day that Bobby Thomson's shot heard 'round the world lifted the New York Giants over the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Los Angeles chased San Francisco rookie starting pitcher Salomon Torres from the game in the fourth inning, and Dave Burba fared no better in relief. Burba was in tears postgame in the cramped visitors' clubhouse.
"I was out of gas," Burba told reporters. "I normally throw 93, 92 miles per hour, but I'd like to see what my fastball was today. I'm lucky if it hit 88."
"One of us had to lose and, unfortunately, it's always us or me," Giants left fielder Barry Bonds said, having lost to the Braves in the NLCS the previous two seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
It was the last true pennant race of sorts, where a second-place team - no matter its record - would not advance to MLB's postseason. It was one of just four times a single division produced two 100-plus win teams. The most recent case was the 2018 Yankees, who had a better fate than the '93 Giants - they won their wild-card game against the 97-win Oakland Athletics.
The 1993 campaign was also the last season before MLB realigned to three divisions per league and expanded the postseason to eight teams. The only NL West race since that's involved two 95-plus win clubs happened in 2002 when the Arizona Diamondbacks won 98 games and the Giants won 95. The Giants earned the NL's wild-card spot and defeated the Braves and Cardinals to advance to the World Series.
Yes, it's early, but it looks like the Dodgers and San Diego Padres might give baseball one of the best NL West races since 1993, and perhaps one of the great races in divisional history. Both teams are that talented on paper, and the stakes are higher than in 2002 since the second-place finisher now faces the prospect of being one-and-done in the wild-card game (instituted in 2012).
Owners and players have begun labor talks again, with ESPN's Jeff Passan reporting that owners are again expected to pursue expanded playoffs. Between that and the historical context, the baseball world should savor this Dodgers-Padres race. There might not be another like it. Their second series of the season begins Thursday after a remarkable first encounter last weekend.
The playoff field has already expanded a number of times. This past winter, players rebuffed the owners' interest in keeping the 16-team format from the COVID-19-shortened season. But in pro sports, playoff formats rarely contract. They almost always grow.
While the Giants are also off to a good start, the Dodgers and Padres are still widely tabbed to be the top two teams in the sport. Entering play Wednesday, FanGraphs forecasts the Dodgers (102 wins) and Padres (94) to finish with the most wins in baseball. FiveThirtyEight also projects the Dodgers (107) and Padres (91) - tied with the Yankees (91) - to win the most and second-most games, though it sees the Dodgers as the only elite team.
The Padres and Dodgers rank one-two in FanGraphs' projected starting-pitching WAR. Each starting staff is loaded after last winter's arms race. The Padres made significant trades to acquire Blake Snell, Joe Musgrove, and Yu Darvish. The Dodgers signed free agent Trevor Bauer to join Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler, and Julio Urias.
The Dodgers rank first and Padres fourth in FanGraphs' projected shortstop WAR, and the Padres would rank higher if not for questions about the health of Fernando Tatis Jr.'s shoulder. Since last season, Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager is hitting about as well as any player in baseball. The Dodgers and Padres rank third and fourth in center-fielder projected production with a superstar in Cody Bellinger (when he returns from a stress fracture) and an emerging star in Padres center fielder Trent Grisham. We can go on and on, but the two teams are loaded.
In their first meeting last weekend, the Dodgers and Padres gave all of those who were able to stay awake for the West Coast night games a treat. Some of the best players in baseball played at the highest level in a stadium energized by the return of fans. The series had a playoff-like feel, and it also seemed to signal a shift in power from the East Coast to the West, as the Dodgers and Padres have amassed as much talent as any clubs in the sport.
In addition to their major-league roster, the Padres also possess a consensus top-10 farm system, while the Dodgers are lauded as a model organization from top to bottom with the ability to run payrolls as large as any club.
Yet the sport is at risk of watering down such in-season meetings.
Baseball, like other sports, is attempting to grow postseason revenues while trying to maintain the integrity of regular-season play. Baseball purists argue the playoff field is already too large.
In last year's expanded playoff, the Padres were a No. 4 seed and advanced from the best-of-three first round to face the Dodgers, who went on to win the World Series. The format was more like an NBA postseason than a traditional baseball one. It's unclear what MLB wants an expanded playoff format to look like in 2022, and what players might agree to.
Would baseball's parties really agree to permanently allow more than half of its current 30 teams into the playoffs after a 162-game season?
There's long been a push to expand the wild card from a single game to a short series. Some have suggested a best-of-three series, possibly including a doubleheader. Proponents include former Cubs executive Theo Epstein, who now works in the MLB office. In South Korea, the KBO uses a best-of-two wild-card format where the team with the better record must win just once to advance, and the lower-seeded team must win twice.
Like the NBA, would MLB consider assigning playoff seeding by record instead of ranking the division winners as the top three seeds? While playoff expansion could jeopardize what we think of as a traditional pennant or division race, a format that allows more of the best teams into the field would arguably add value to regular-season play, not subtract it. Expanding to an NBA-style format, however, would represent a radical break from the historical importance of winning a league or division.
If the Dodgers and Padres finish as elite teams and one falls into a play-in game, there could be added pressure to change the system with labor talks likely ongoing, just as 1993's results colored decisions about the 1994 season.
There is potential for Dodgers-Padres to be a great postseason race, with two elite teams fighting for one important spot. The season is young, and both teams still have a long way to go, but the rosters suggest this could be a fun chase to follow - and one of the last of its kind before the playoff field expands yet again.
Travis Sawchik is theScore's senior baseball writer. Follow him on Twitter at @Travis_Sawchik.