It took 161 games to set up the dominos. Sunday is the day they get knocked down.
No first-round matchups are set as the season hits its final day. Two spots in the National League are still under contention. Seedings across the board have not yet been determined. The result: the ultimate baseball Sunday funday. Padres hurler Tim Stauffer, who was one of the architects of the unsettled Sunday, may have put it best: "You go to the first game of Spring Training and you say game 162 is going to matter. That's what you play for."
The winners of two divisions and two Wild Cards will be decided in Game No. 162 (or 163 or 164, more on that later). Only two clubs know where they will be headed when the playoffs start. Given all that must be accomplished on Sunday, the stakes are staggeringly high. This is why we watch.
"You can get stretched out if you start thinking about all the scenarios," said Padres manager Bud Black. "The easiest thing for me, our coaching staff and our players is to concentrate on the single game. But this is great stuff. It's great for the game of baseball. You can't beat this feeling as it has been going on, the whole ride all year for this group of players. It's been one of the best years I've been around to witness the effect this has had on our team."
Be sure to check out MLB.com throughout the day, to watch games live on MLB.TV and catch live look-ins on the most crucial action. Better yet, buy tickets to see the games in person. It all starts at 1:35 p.m. ET.
The scenarios are easier to lay out in the American League, but the National League has the potential for much more drama. Historical drama. Along the way, several clubs will tune up for the postseason, while others will be trying to make their mark as spoilers. It's enough to make your head spin. So consider this a final-day FAQ.
What happens if the Padres win ...
Should San Diego win the 4:05 p.m. ET contest in San Francisco, there could be a play-in game between the Padres and Giants. San Diego won the season series between the clubs -- right now it stands at 12-5 -- so the game would be held at PETCO Park.
"This club is very resilient and we knew coming here that our destiny was in our hands ... it still is," said San Diego second baseman David Eckstein.
The Padres are trying to do something unprecedented. No team has ever swept the final series of the season to force a play-in game, then won that game. The closest any team has come was in 1980, when the Dodgers took three in a row from the Astros to force the tiebreaker, but dropped the fourth.
"We've had Game 7 for the last two days now," said Padres closer Heath Bell. "Tomorrow's going to be Game 7 [again]. We're going to put it all on the line, not leave anything for Monday, give everything we have. We're going to need everybody tomorrow."
One person who will be key for the Padres is right-hander Mat Latos. At 22, Latos has become San Diego's ace in his first full season in the Majors, and he starts the club's biggest game of the season. Latos didn't have his best stuff in September, when he went 1-4 with a 6.21 ERA, but he has impressive career numbers against San Francisco: Five starts, 2.25 ERA, 23 hits allowed in 32 innings.
... and the Braves win?
San Diego and San Francisco would face off in the play-in game Monday at PETCO Park. The winner would be declared NL West champion. The loser would face Atlanta in another play-in game to decide the Wild Card. Atlanta won the series series against San Diego (4-2) and San Francisco (4-3), so the play-in game would be held at Turner Field.
The Braves start right-hander Tim Hudson on Sunday at 1:35 p.m. ET. Hudson is 5-7 in his career against Philadephia, with a 3.71 ERA, but that all goes out the window in one game.
"Whoever we have on the mound [Sunday] has to go out and battle for us," Braves outfielder Jason Heyward said. "We have no doubt that he will."
|If two teams are tied atop the division and both are assured of making the postseason, head-to-head record would be used to determine which team is the division champ and which falls to the Wild Card.|
|If two teams are tied atop the division and share the Wild Card lead with another club, the ties will be broken in the following fashion:|
The teams tied atop the division will play, with the winner taking the division.
The losing team will then play the remaining Wild Card contender, with the winner making the playoffs.
|If three clubs are tied atop a division or Wild Card standings, each club would be designated in one of three slots, "A," "B," or "C." Clubs get to choose their designation based on head-to-head records. Tiebreaking games would then proceed like this:|
Club A hosts Club B on Monday, Oct. 4
The winner of the first game hosts Club C on Oct. 5, with the winner declared champion.
... and the Braves fall?
There would be no need for a play-in game between the Padres and Giants. San Diego would take the NL West, and San Francisco would be the Wild Card. San Diego would host Cincinnati in the first round, while San Francisco would play in Philadelphia.
The Phillies have some degree of control over their first-round opponent. Philadelphia will face Cincinnati in the first round if the Braves win the Wild Card. If the Wild Card comes from the West, that club will play the Phillies.
In anticipation of the first round, the Phillies are resting their pitchers; that's why Roy Halladay was skipped in the rotation on Saturday. Still, nobody can accuse the Phillies of going easy on the Braves, especially since the Phillies won the first two games of the series.
Philadelphia will start left-hander Cole Hamels, and righty Roy Oswalt will follow him in relief. The Phillies have not yet announced each hurler's workload beyond the delightfully vague "enough to keep sharp." Halladay will be the Phillies' Game 1 starter, followed by Oswalt and Hamels.
"I always think you should put a team on the field that can win, and your goal should always be to win that game on that day," said Phillies manager Charlie Manuel.
Braves manager Bobby Cox said that he wouldn't have it any other way, even though a Braves loss and Padres win would mean that Cox's managerial career is finished.
"Charlie Manuel's doing the right thing," Cox said on Friday. "He's got to get his team ready for the playoffs. If we haven't made it before now, shame on us. He has to do all the preparation work to get his team exactly where he wants it."
What happens if the Giants win ...
San Francisco wins the West.
The situation is not very complex for the Giants: Win and they're in. It's a far rosier proposition than they faced on Aug. 25, when they were 6 1/2 games out.
"We've gone through our ups and downs," said Giants catcher Buster Posey. "We've been battling all year and we've just got to to come out and get the job done [Sunday]."
The Giants will start left-hander Jonathan Sanchez, he of the no-hitter last season against the Padres. Sanchez has a 2.69 ERA in his career against the Padres.
... and the Braves win?
Atlanta would win the Wild Card, and San Diego would be eliminated.
... and the Braves lose?
Atlanta and San Diego would be tied atop the Wild Card standings, and a play-in game would be held at Turner Field on Monday.
Where do the Reds go in the first round?
That depends on what happens in the West. If the Wild Card comes from the West, the Reds will face the winner of that division. If the Braves win the Wild Card, the Reds would open on the road against the Phillies, because divisional opponents Atlanta and Philadelphia can't face off in the first round.
The Reds are preparing as if they will face Philadelphia, hence manager Dusty Baker selected righty Edinson Volquez as his Game 1 starter. Volquez wasn't immediately effective after he returned at midseason from Tommy John surgery, but he's since picked things up.
"He's coming on pretty strong," Baker said. "He's been especially good against lefties. The Phillies have a lot of lefties."
The situation in the American League is much more simple.
What happens if the Rays win ...
Because Tampa Bay owns the head-to-head tiebreaker over New York, the Rays need to finish even with or ahead of the Yankees in the AL East. The clubs enter play Sunday tied, and the Rays send Wade Davis to the hill in the final installment of a three-game series against the Royals at 2:10 p.m. ET. Kansas City sends Sean O'Sullivan to the hill.
... and the Yankees win?
If the Rays win, they hold all the cards in the AL postseason hand, regardless of what the Yankees do. Tampa Bay owns the tiebreaker against New York, by virtue of a 10-8 season series record. The Rays also hold the tiebreaker over the Twins because they topped the Twins in the season series, 5-3.
That doesn't mean the Yankees are conceding anything when they face the Red Sox in their regular-season finale on Sunday at 1:35 p.m. ET. The Bombers start right-hander Dustin Moseley against Boston righty John Lackey.
"It's going to be good," Moseley said. "I'll try to get out there, give it my all tomorrow. ... I'm going to take it for what it's worth, go out there, do what I can do and hopefully we come out on top."
What happens if the Rays lose ...
The Rays could still drop into the Wild Card spot and open the postseason in Minnesota, provided they lose and the Yankees win. The club is not at full strength as it concludes the season, most notably third baseman Evan Longoria, who is battling a strained right quad.
Longoria hasn't played since Sept. 23, and he won't play on Sunday. Rays manager Joe Maddon said that he would be especially cautious with his star slugger, but that Longoria was feeling well.
"He's doing great, he looks good," Maddon said. "He's moving along really well."
... and the Yankees win?
The Yankees will win the division and host the Rangers. New York skipped right-hander Phil Hughes this weekend and has been taking the opportunities provided by an early clinch to rest certain key players, perhaps contributing to the club's 12-15 September. It is the first time the Yankees have had a losing record in September since 2000.
"You ever watch 'The Brady Bunch' and they had that phony football playbook?" said Yankees general manager Brian Cashman. "If you're advance scouting us here in September, I think we're holding back all our big plays. We're saving hopefully our best for October, and we've played possum here in September."
Who do the Twins play in the first round?
The Twins are locked into the second seed in the first round, because they dropped the season series to both the Yankees and Rays. The best the Twins can do is equal the Yankees and Rays with 95 wins, and because of the tiebreakers, the Twins can't surpass them. Minnesota will open the postseason at Target Field, where it enters Sunday with a 53-27 record, against the Wild Card winner.
The Twins will play the first round without first baseman Justin Morneau, who hasn't played since July 7 because of a concussion. Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said that Morenau worked out this week, but the slugger won't appear in the Division Series.
"He feels good," said Gardenhire. "His legs feel good and that's the big thing. He got a nice workout in, took some swings, took some ground balls -- everything feels good."
Where will the Rangers go?
The Rangers will open the Division Series in the home stadium of the AL East winner, whoever that may be. Texas got a lift on Saturday from slugger Josh Hamilton, making his return from two fractured ribs. In his second game back, Hamilton went 2-for-4 with a homer.
"I felt good, felt calm," Hamilton said. "I'm not pushing, trying to get pitches. A couple of times, I felt some things [in my swing], and I can address them tomorrow. But if you're looking for results ... they were there."
Sunil Joshi is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.