Two old reliables and lots of uncertainty greeted playoff contenders’ fans and ticket sellers in the final days of the baseball regular season. It took a wild final night Wednesday, September 28, to set the playoff match-ups.
The New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies, annual playoff regulars, finished atop the American and National Leagues and will have home-field advantage throughout the postseason, which begins with two AL Division Series games Friday in Arlington, TX, and New York.
Four other division winners knew they were in, but weren’t sure where they’d be playing until the season’s crazy last day. And the wild card teams? Historic September collapses by the Boston Red Sox and Atlanta Braves, and fantastic finishes by the Tampa Bay Rays in the AL, and the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL, finalized the field.
Here’s a look at the two best-of-five AL Division Series match-ups:
Detroit Tigers at New York Yankees
While other contenders spent the final week battling to see when and where (or for the Rays, if)they’d play, the Yankees (97-65), making their 16th playoff appearance in the past 17 years, knew all along they’d send left-handed ace CC Sabathia to the mound Friday night, September 30, at 8:30 at Yankee Stadium for Game 1 of the ALDS.
The Yankees took advantage of their arch rival’s meltdown to run away with the AL East, zooming from a half-game back of Boston on September 1 to as much as eight games ahead this week. The Yankees led the AL in home attendance for the ninth consecutive season, averaging 45,107 attendees a game, and the Bronx will be rocking again Friday and Saturday for Games 1 and 2.
As for the Yanks’ opponent? It took until Game 162 to determine that it would be the Detroit Tigers heading to the New York for the ALDS. Detroit (95-67) lost out on the AL’s No. 2 seed, and opening at home, by finishing a game behind the Texas Rangers (96-66).
Still, the AL Central-winning Tigers will be a formidable challenge for the Yankees. They won the season series against New York, 4-3. Led by AL Cy Young certainty and MVP candidate Justin Verlander (24-5) and AL batting champion Miguel Cabrera (.344), Detroit returns to the postseason for the first time since 2006, when they knocked off the Yankees on their way to the World Series. Attendance is up at Comerica Park (2,331 a game over last year), but the uncertainty of the schedule before the season’s final day had ticket sellers in a holding pattern until Thursday.
“All I know now is they’re guaranteed to play one game here [Game 3 at Comerica Monday, October 3],” owner Joel Schwartz of Big Time Worldwide Ticket Agency told TicketNews before the match-ups were determined, echoing a familiar lament among Detroit-area brokers.
Tampa Bay Rays at Texas Rangers
The Texas Rangers are coming off their first World Series appearance last year and they beat the Yankees in the AL Championship Series to get there. This year, Texas set a franchise attendance record of 2,946,949 (36,382 a game) at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, TX. That’s where they’ll host the Rays (91-71) on Friday at 5 p.m. in Game 1 of the ALDS. It’s a rematch of last year’s series, won by Texas in five games.
Solid seasons from Josh Hamilton, Michael Young, free-agent addition Adrian Beltre and a surprising young pitching staff have the baseball buzz continuing in Texas.
“We expect it to be as big as last year,” Jeff Green, president of Ticket Finders USA in Dallas, told TicketNews. “We haven’t had playoff baseball here two years in a row, so fans here are fired up.”
Having the Rangers home for the first two games is a best-case scenario for Texas ticket brokers.
“I’d like to get Boston in here as the wild card and start at home,” Green said earlier this week. “But it’s going to be good either way. Usually you don’t make money off the Division Series, but we did last year even with Tampa Bay.”
The Rays clinched the wild card by rallying from a 7-0 deficit to beat the Yankees 8-7 Wednesday night in the regular season finale at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, FL. Tampa Bay was down to its last strike before Dan Johnson’s homer tied it in the ninth. Evan Longoria’s home run in the 12th inning, the sixth walk-off homer to clinch a postseason berth in MLB history, capped the comeback. The game served as a microcosm of the Rays’ September, in which they began the month trailing the Red Sox by as many as nine games in the wild card race. Longoria’s winning homer came just moments after the Red Sox blew a ninth-inning lead and lost 3-2 to the Orioles in Baltimore, capping their month-long slide.
The Rays’ attendance problems are well-documented. Hosting the Yankees with a playoff bid on the line this week, Tampa Bay drew 18,772 attendees, then 22,820, and finally 29,518 for their three-game series at 34,078-seat Tropicana Field.
“We thought we were done 30 days ago,” Rays season ticket holder Craig Sher told the Tampa Tribune on Tuesday. “It’s different because we’re not prepared for it. In 2008 [the Rays’ surprising AL East title season], people were prepared.”
Now, they’ll have to prepare to host the Rangers in Game 3 in St. Petersburg on Monday.