For the second consecutive year, the last Monday in October will feature a sports equinox. Not related to the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, a sports equinox happens when the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB each have games scheduled on one day. On top of game three of the World Series between the Texas Rangers and Arizona Diamondbacks, Oct. 30’s professional sports slate includes “Monday Night Football” between the Las Vegas Raiders and Detroit Lions, nine NHL contests and 11 NBA matchups. Additionally, Orlando City SC hosts Nashville SC and the Seattle Sounders play FC Dallas in the first round of the Major League Soccer Cup Playoffs.
Monday’s equinox will mark the 15th time that this phenomenon has happened since 2010 and the 30th overall since it first occurred in 1971. 24 of those instances took place in October, the one month where the five major North American major sports leagues and the WNBA all simultaneously played. The new NHL and NBA campaigns begin within two weeks of each other while the NFL enters the middle of their 17-game regular-season slate. By Halloween, NHL and NFL fans get some understanding of how their favorite team’s season could go by the end of the month.
But none of those come close to the intensity of postseason baseball. Although postseason contests have more impact than regular-season games do, playoff baseball is a different animal. With the expanded postseason format introduced in 2022, where the Wild Card series went from a winner-takes-all situation to a best-of-three duel, every substitution matters as it can affect a team’s short-term outlook and their World Series chances.
Using a recent example, Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash pulled starter Blake Snell in Game 6 of the 2020 World Series with their season on the line, despite the fact that he threw 73 pitches in 5.1 scoreless innings. Right-handed reliever Nick Anderson entered from the bullpen, surrendered the Rays’ 1-0 lead in that frame and took the loss in the season-ending 3-1 defeat against the Los Angeles Dodgers. The decision to remove a player can backfire, because like in soccer, an athlete may not re-enter a baseball game when they are removed and replaced. Ramifications that arise from ill-timed decisions may occur when that happens, but those regrets can be redeemed the next day, unlike other playoffs transpiring during Halloween month.
Starting with yesterday’s Wild Card contests between the Eastern and Western Conference’s No. 9 and No. 8 seeds, the early rounds of the MLS Cup playoffs occur toward October’s end. Although the MLS’ postseason structure involves more “one-and-done” matches than the MLB does, the later rounds and the MLS Cup take place in November. More MLS teams may be fighting for a playoff spot during October, when the regular season ends, but treating the last few matches like playoff games feels much different than actually playing in one. The WNBA has their champion decided in a best-of-five series, which ends a week before the NBA season tips off. Approximately half of the eight teams that qualify for the playoffs, a number that has been consistent since the turn of the millennia, go home before October starts because the entire first round takes place at the end of September.
One major aspect that separates the MLB postseason from the other two playoff formats is the number of days between games. The WNBA playoffs typically feature 3-4 days where teams are not playing each other, while MLS wait times range anywhere from five days to one week. I find nothing wrong with there being at least one day off between soccer and basketball games, especially when accounting for travel and the way their regular season schedules are formatted, but the suspense of what happens next in baseball keeps fans on the edge of their seats daily. Even then, who walks out of the ballpark with the win can be unpredictable.
Since the Wild Card era began in 1995, MLB’s postseason has gained an unofficial reputation as the fall version of March Madness because of how unexpected the results can be. The Atlanta Braves scorched baseball with a league-leading 307 home runs during the regular season and left the yard just three times in their second-straight NLDS loss against the Wild Card Philadelphia Phillies. The No. 6 seed has won the National League pennant each of the last two years. The Dodgers won a combined 423 regular-season games between 2019 and 2023, excluding the 60-game 2020 slate; they have one NLCS appearance and two victories in that span.
Non-division champions make up 15 of the 58 total World Series representatives in the 29 postseasons with the Wild Card; seven of them have won it all with an eighth on the way. The 174 combined wins between both of this year’s World Series participants are the fewest in Major League history, excluding 2020. Only the 2018 Boston Red Sox and 2022 Houston Astros won the World Series with 100+ regular season wins since UConn men’s basketball coach Dan Hurley got hired in March of 2018.
For comparison, the NFL has had seven non-division winners in the Super Bowl who went a combined 6-1 between the 1995 and 2022 seasons. Since its inaugural campaign in 1997, the WNBA has had four championship series where at least one team was not in the top three in either their conference or the league’s standings.
One trend has become increasingly clear through this analysis: wild card teams make an improbable championship run more often in the MLB than any other sports league that has one in their playoffs. While October features a mix of regular-season action and competitive battles for historic trophies, there is no sport I want to watch more than baseball because of the unanticipated results and memorable battles that its postseason brings.