2023 Is an Exorcism for Some of Baseball’s Most Tortured Teams

From a Wall Street Journal story by Lindsey Adler headlined “Baseball’s Underdogs Have Their Moment This Season”:

Baseball’s postseason in 2023 is shaping up as an exorcism of sorts for some of baseball’s most tortured teams.

Three playoff teams—the Baltimore Orioles, Texas Rangers and Arizona Diamondbacks—lost 100 or more games as recently as 2021. The Miami Marlins, who have willed their way into a wild card as well, lost 93 and 95 games in the prior two seasons.

The Orioles, Rangers and Diamondbacks have all struggled through rebuilding periods while toiling in divisions featuring perennial powerhouses in the Tampa Bay Rays, Houston Astros, and Los Angeles Dodgers—teams they will now compete with for a title. The Toronto Blue Jays, who will face the Minnesota Twins in the wild-card series, have also been stymied trying to ascend through the AL East in recent years.

Getting strong enough to hold their own in the division, it turns out, has been key to some of these teams’ turnarounds.

“Where the organization turned the corner was being able to win games in the AL East,” Orioles outfielder Austin Hays said.

The postseason gets under way on Tuesday, when the four wild-card series begin. In the American League, Tampa Bay will face Texas and Toronto will play Minnesota. Baltimore and Houston, the division winners with the best records, have byes. In the National League, the Philadelphia Phillies and Miami Marlins square off in one series and Arizona and the Milwaukee Brewers play in the other. The powerful Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers have byes.

Reaching the postseason might mean the most to the few players who made it through their team’s rebuilds while suffering through uncompetitive seasons.

“It feels so sweet,” said Rangers first baseman Nathaniel Lowe, one of only four players held over since Texas’ 102-loss 2021 season. “After getting beaten for two years straight wearing this uniform, to be able to come out and know that we have a real chance to win a World Series is all you can ask for.”

The Braves look like the World Series favorite again, and the New York Mets’ issues this season helped clear the NL East to allow both the Marlins and the Phillies to reach the wild-card round. The Brewers ran away with the NL Central to take the final spot.

This year’s World Series could still wind up being a showdown of recent league superpowers, such as the Braves, Rays, Dodgers, or Astros. But the excitement this year comes from the real opportunity for a fresh franchise to reach the game’s biggest stage. The current postseason format, which expanded under the current collective bargaining agreement to include a third wild-card team and created an entire three-game wild-card series, has further reinforced a long-brewing division between the regular season and a team’s chance of postseason success.

In a three-game series, and in a month-long postseason tournament, there is no guarantee that one of the powers that dominated the regular season will be the team holding the trophy at the end of the World Series. The playoffs, to the irritation of some and delight of others, are practically engineered to allow for upsets.

The Rays’ roster is depleted by pitching injuries and shortstop Wander Franco’s administrative leave. The Dodgers have real concerns going into the postseason, especially around their paper-thin pitching depth. These two teams are making their regularly scheduled returns to the postseason, but will look to avoid the same early exits they suffered last postseason.

Each team has to find its own method of motivation as it heads into the adrenaline-fueled marathon of the postseason. The Orioles in particular get to be powered by youth and awe at the fact that they even have a chance to compete for the trophy after a miserable run of seasons since their last postseason appearance in 2016. The Astros, Braves, and Rays are stacked with players with postseason experience. The Dodgers, with a mix of MVP-caliber veterans and still-developing pitchers, once again have to try to shake off their reputation as postseason chokers.

Sometimes, it is the freedom from expectations that can allow a team to run through October. Some of this year’s entrants might have the ability to access their recent adversity as an extra gear. Two years ago, they were the game’s biggest losers. This time, they have an opportunity to become the game’s biggest winner.

Lindsey Adler covers baseball for The Wall Street Journal. Previously, she covered the New York Yankees for five seasons.

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