A Beautiful Season for Baseball: The Great Times and Bad Breaks of 2012

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Chris O'Meara / AP Photo

Baltimore Orioles catcher Matt Wieters, left, and designated hitter Chris Davis, right, high-five teammates after defeating the Tampa Bay Rays 1-0 in a baseball game, Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2012, in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Upsets galore! Perennial losers vaulting to the top! All-stars benched and no-names turned into heroes! Games so close that anxious fans bite their nails down to the knuckle! One future Hall of Famer who breaks a 45-year-old record for batting supremacy, and another who breaks his ankle and must be carried off the field! Wild melodrama that obliges sportswriters to end every sentence fragment with an exclamation point!

The 2012 major league baseball season and the first full round of playoffs provided plenty of excitement: close races in five of the six divisions and, Oct. 3, last-day scrimmages for wild-card slots. The Detroit Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera led the American League in batting average, home runs and runs batted in to become the first Triple Crown winner since 1967 (and many sabermetricians thought that the Angels’ Mike Trout, a rookie, had a better season). And for the first time in the 18 years of the current playoff system, all four League Divisions series went the full five games, with 13 of those 20 contests determined by just one or two runs. That divine hubbub stoked a million thrills and many more ulcers — October ecstasy for the fans of the upstart Baltimore Orioles, Oakland Athletics and Washington Nationals, tremors for the adherents of such powerhouses as the Texas Rangers, Philadelphia Phillies and Boston Red Sox.

(MORE: Corliss: My Team, the A’s)

When the regular season ended in early October, so was the natural baseball order of strength and money gloriously upended. Only three of last year’s postseason teams (the Tigers, the New York Yankees and the St. Louis Cardinals) made it to the elite eight this year; and of the seven teams with the highest player payrolls, only two (the Yanks and Tigers) played more than one postseason game. That left playoff spots for the A’s, the O’s and the Nats, and the chance for their long-suffering acolytes to hope that the ultimate prize, a World Series championship, might be theirs.

Heartbreak alert: Power reasserted itself on Thursday and Friday, as the Tigers and Yankees won the American League Division Series, while the Cardinals and the San Francisco Giants prevailed in the NLDS. Thus the final four comprises the winners of the last three World Series (Yankees 2009, Giants 2010, Cards 2011) and the Tigers, who fell two games short of reaching the Series last year.

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