By AJ Willingham, CNN
After a truncated, pandemic-hobbled 2020, the MLB playoffs have come roaring back in full force.
A wild end of September saw several teams fighting for spots in the postseason right up until the final regular season game, and some World Series favorites still catching their breath after 11th-hour playoff clinches.
Now, after Chris Taylor’s dramatic home run Wednesday night lifted the defending champs Los Angeles Dodgers past the St. Louis Cardinals, eight teams remain.
In the American League, the Tampa Bay Rays will battle the Boston Red Sox while the Chicago White Sox face off against the Houston Astros.
Over in the National League, the Atlanta Braves face the Milwaukee Brewers while the Dodgers and the San Francisco Giants meet in an epic clash between archrivals with the two best records in baseball.
Here’s a recap of the late-season twists and turns that got us here, and a look at the best playoff storylines.
Two bitter East Coast rivals squeak into the playoffs
Every once in a precious while, 162 regular-season games just aren’t enough to paint a full postseason picture.
Only 16 times in MLB history have tiebreaker matchups been needed to determine division winners or wild-card spots.
Fans this year were itching for some Game 163 action in the American League, which could have ended in a three- or even four-way tie for the wild card.
But the Yankees and Red Sox both clinched playoff spots on the very last day of the regular season, edging the surging Toronto Blue Jays and surprising Seattle Mariners.
And the drama wasn’t over! That set up a crucial one-and-done duel between the two most storied rivals in baseball. The Red Sox beat the Yankees, 6-2, on Tuesday before a thunderous home crowd at Fenway Park and now face the Rays, who easily won the AL East division.
The Rays have their own score to settle, though: They lost last year’s World Series to the Dodgers.
On the West Coast, the returning champs face a resurgent dynasty
The Los Angeles Dodgers are loaded with talent, won 106 games and are favorites to repeat their 2020 World Series glory.
But they came very close to not even making it this far — thanks to their divisional rivals, the San Francisco Giants, who won 107 games and snatched the NL West division title from the Dodgers on the very last day of the season.
That sent the Dodgers to the NL wild-card game to face the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cards were heavy underdogs, but in a one-game playoff, anything can happen.
For a while it looked like the Cardinals might hold on to an early 1-0 lead and shock the champs, but the baseball gods would not be denied.
The Dodgers tied the game, then won it with Taylor’s stunning blast in the bottom of the ninth inning — only the fifth time in MLB history that a postseason, winner-take-all game ended with a walk-off home run.
Now, poetically, the Dodgers will face the Giants in the divisional round. It’s safe to say they’ll be looking for revenge.
The Giants, meanwhile, are looking for their first World Series win since their historic 2010, 2012 and 2014 championship runs.
Two teams are gunning for their first-ever titles
While this year’s playoff field is stocked with recent World Series champs (the Dodgers won in 2020, the Red Sox in 2018 and the Astros in 2017), the Milwaukee Brewers and the Tampa Bay Rays have never tasted sweet World Series victory.
Both are small-market franchises that have been to the World Series — the Brewers only once, in 1982 — but have never brought home the hardware.
The Atlanta Braves have something to prove here, too. Their last World Series title came in 1995, making them the team with the longest championship drought among those remaining contenders who have won rings.
And the Chicago White Sox have captured only one World Series crown in the last century — in 2005, which to their fans probably feels like ancient history.
Covid-19 may have altered the playoff picture
While many MLB teams relaxed Covid-19 protocols in the second half of the season, the specter of the pandemic still hovers over the playoffs.
Major League Baseball requested that teams in 2021 reach at least an 85% vaccination rate among their players. Several teams that failed to reach that threshold hurt their playoff chances when key players were suspended due to Covid-19.
After a strong start to the season, for example, the Red Sox stumbled in the second half as many of their players were sidelined by positive covid tests. Boston still squeaked into the postseason, but other teams were not so lucky.
Major League Baseball will require all non-playing personnel — including managers, coaches and athletic trainers — to be vaccinated for Covid-19 in order to gain access to the field and other restricted areas during the postseason.
When it comes to fans at playoff games, MLB is leaving coronavirus protocols, such as mask requirements, up to the individual teams.
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