The 2012 MLB season started a new era for baseball, at least as far as its playoff structure. After 2011 was marked by a dramatic finish where both league’s wild-card berths were settled on the final day, the league decided to ensure that kind of drama every year. A second wild-card was added, with a single-game knockout used to decide which one would join the three division winners in the remainder of the playoffs.
Even though the format was new, the sport got a familiar champion. The Giants had moved from New York to San Francisco in 1958, and their new home city waited all the way to 2010 before seeing a World Series champion. San Francisco didn’t wait nearly as long for the second title, returning to the top in 2012.
Buster Posey was the biggest reason why. The catcher hit .336, popped 24 homers, drove in 103 runs, carried an otherwise pedestrian offense, and won the MVP award. A balanced pitching staff saw the quartet of Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, Barry Zito and Ryan Vogelsong combine to win 61 games.
The Giants got off to a slow start and were 7 ½ games back of the Los Angeles Dodgers on Memorial Day. The Dodgers had Cy Young runner-up Clayton Kershaw anchoring their rotation and a couple of good all-around outfielders in Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier.
But Kemp was injury prone, Giant pitching was deeper and San Francisco began to make their move. The deficit was down to a half-game by the All-Star Break. The Giants took control in late summer, pushing out a 4 ½ game lead by Labor Day, and then pulling away down the stretch. Los Angeles was relegated to fighting for a wild-card berth down the stretch.
The strength of the NL East had already taken the first wild-card off the table. The Washington Nationals and Atlanta Braves both reached September in comfortable shape to make the playoffs.
Washington had the best pitching in the NL, led by 21-game winner Gio Gonzalez. Jordan Zimmerman finished with a 2.94 ERA. Stephen Strasburg won 15 games. There were no weak points in the rotation, and the offense was pretty good too. Adam LaRoche hit 33 homers and drove in 100 runs. On the left side of the infield, shortstop Ian Desmond and third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, combined to hit 50 home runs. And a 19-year-old named Bryce Harper broke into the league and popped 22 more dingers.
Atlanta had a breakout star of their own in 22-year-old first baseman Freddie Freeman, who hit 23 homers and finished with 94 RBIs. Michael Bourn was a steady centerfielder. Tim Hudson won 16 games to lead the rotation. And if the Braves had a late lead, forget about it. Craig Kimbrel saved 42 games with a dazzling 1.01 ERA.
Washington held a steady, but persistent lead in the division race. One advantage of adding the second wild-card is that winning this race—and avoiding the one-game knockout—took on real significance. The Nationals had nudged out to a 6 ½ game lead by Labor Day. The Braves got as close as three games out with three to play, but Washington ultimately put it away. The Nats were in the Division Series. Atlanta would host the National League’s first wild-card game.
The Cincinnati Reds pulled away from the rest of the NL Central. Joey Votto hit .337, while Jay Bruce hit 34 homers with 99 RBIs. But it was pitching that really made the Reds stand out. Johnny Cueto won 19 games, posted a 2.78 ERA and was one of four Cincinnati starters that logged over 200 innings. With Dusty Baker in the dugout, the Reds took the race over in late summer and cruised home to win the division.
That brings us to the defending World Series champions—the St. Louis Cardinals. If this race had taken place a year earlier, the Cards would have been out of luck, as the Reds put a stranglehold on the NL Central and the Braves did the same with the wild-card spot. But the extra playoff berth kept St. Louis squarely in the hunt.
A deep and well-balanced offense ranked second in the National League for runs scored. Highlights included Carlos Beltran’s 32 homers, Matt Holliday’s 102 RBIs, and Jon Jay hitting .305. But the most complete all-around everyday player was Yadier Molina and the catcher finished fourth in the NL MVP voting. Kyle Lohse went 16-3 at the top of the rotation. Lance Lynn won 18 games. Jake Westbrook and Adam Wainwright combined to win 27 more.
St. Louis and Los Angeles came down the stretch in a packed race for the second wild-card. By the final three days of the season, the Cardinals were two games up. And on the season’s penultimate day, St. Louis clinched.
The Cardinals then made the most of their second chance. In a wild-card game marked by controversy over a disputed infield fly call that killed a late Braves rally, St. Louis won it 6-3. The NL Division Series round would see St. Louis go to Washington, while Cincinnati squared off with San Francisco.
Texas had won the last two American League pennants, and the Rangers spent much of the season looking like they might make a good run at a third. Third baseman Adrian Beltre led the best offense in baseball. He hit .321, slammed 36 home runs, finished with 102 RBIs, and placed third in the MVP voting. Josh Hamilton was fifth in the MVP tally behind 43 homers and 128 ribbies. Nelson Cruz and Mike Napoli hit 24 dingers apiece. In the rotation, Matt Harrison and newcomer Yu Darvish combined to win 34 games.
The early competition for Texas in the AL West came from the Los Angeles Angels. A dynamic rookie by the name of Mike Trout hit .326 with 30 homers and was runner-up in the MVP race. Jered Weaver went 20-5 and finished third in the Cy Young voting. The Angels had made the splash of the offseason in signing Albert Pujols away from St. Louis, and Pujols hit 30 bombs.
But after staying with four games of Texas at the All-Star break, the Angels began to fade. And the surprising Oakland A’s rose up the ranks. The pitching staff had no real stars, but also no weaknesses—the top 11 pitchers had ERAs in the 2s and 3s. Offensively, Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespeda combined for 55 home runs. It was enough to pull within three games of Texas by Labor Day
Texas and Oakland met in the final three-game series of the year. The Rangers had a two-game lead. But the A’s won a pair of close games to make the final day of the season a winner-take-all. Oakland crushed Texas 12-5 and took home a surprising division title. The Rangers would still host the wild-card game, but were suddenly reeling.
The AL East contenders were led by one of the usual suspects in the New York Yankees. The Tampa Bay Rays were now a regular challenger. But the division had two teams see their fortunes drastically change. Boston completely collapsed and finished in last place. And the Baltimore Orioles, irrelevant since the late 1990s, rose up.
New York’s offense scored the second-most runs in the American League. Second baseman Robinson Cano finished fourth in the MVP voting behind a .313 batting average, 33 home runs and 94 RBIs. Curtis Granderson had a big 43-homer season. Russell Martin, Nick Swisher, and Mark Teixeria all hit 20-plus homers. Derek Jeter had another vintage year, batting .316.
The Yankees had their share of adversity—the great Mariano Rivera had a season-ending injury early in the year. But Rafael Soriano stepped up with 42 saves. In the rotation, the combination of Hiroki Kuroda, C.C. Sabathia and Phil Hughes combined to win 47 games.
Baltimore’s offense was fueled by power—Adam Jones and Chris Davis each exceeded the 30-homer threshold. Matt Wieters, Mark Reynolds, and J.J. Hardy all hit 20 homers or more. A mediocre pitching staff was skillfully managed by Buck Showalter and anchored by one of the league’s top closers—Jim Johnson saved 51 games with a 2.42 ERA.
The Orioles, along with the Yankees and Rays, all went into September running neck-and-heck. It was in the latter part of the month that New York and Baltimore began to get some space, while Tampa Bay gradually began to slip. The Rays had the eventual Cy Young Award winner in 20-game winner David Price. But Price would join the NL Cy Young Award winner—New York Mets starter R.A. Dickey—on the outside looking in for the playoffs.
In the meantime, New York and Baltimore went to the final three days of the season. The Yanks led the AL East by a single game, and both teams were in the playoffs. New York put Boston’s season out of its misery by sweeping the Red Sox three straight to pick up the division title and the #1 seed.
Baltimore went to Texas. Both teams were 93-69, so even under the old format, this is still a game that would have been played as a tiebreaker. The Orioles completed the Ranger collapse by getting a road win. It set up the final AL East battle with the Yankees in the Division Series.
Detroit got a historic season from Miguel Cabrera. The third baseman not only won the AL MVP award, he brought home the sport’s first Triple Crown since 1967—leading the American League with a .330 batting average, 44 home runs and 139 RBIs. Cabrera was joined in the Tiger lineup by first baseman Prince Fielder, whose .313 average, 30 homers and 108 ribbies were pretty good in their own right. The rotation was led by Justin Verlander, who was the Cy Young runner-up behind 17 wins, a 2.64 ERA and 238 innings pitched. Max Scherzer chipped in 16 more wins.
But Detroit took a long time to get going in what proved to be a mediocre AL Central. The Chicago White Sox, led by 17-game winner Chris Sale and a power-laden lineup that included Adam Dunn’s 41-homer season.
Chicago led the race for much of the summer, with Detroit persistently in the rearview mirror. With a week and a half go to, the Tigers made their move—they turned a one-game deficit into a three-game lead and took home the division title. It hadn’t been a dynamic season in Detroit. But it was good enough—and they had momentum going into October. The Tigers were paired up against the A’s in the Division Series round.
Division Series play has been going on continuously in major league baseball since 1995. This 2012 postseason marked the first time that all four series went the full five games.
New York and Baltimore played three straight one-run games, two of them going into extra innings. The Orioles got a couple wins and forced a decisive Game 5 in the Bronx. Detroit won the first two games over Oakland at home, but the A’s bounced back to take Games 3 & 4 back on the West Coast.
The Game 5s in the ALDS were all about big-time pitching. Sabathia took the ball for the Yankees and delivered a 3-1 win. Verlander was on the mound for the Tigers in a 6-0 shutout. New York and Detroit were moving on to play for the pennant.
Division Series action in the National League was even more dramatic. Cincinnati looked home free after they went into San Francisco and captured the first two games. Then the Giants pulled out an extra-inning affair in Game 3. At which point, the Reds fell apart. San Francisco outscored Cincy 14-7 over the last two games, completing an epic collapse for the Reds.
The best ending yet came in the St. Louis-Washington series. The Nats won the opener. The Cardinal bats unloaded, scoring 20 runs combined to win Games 2 & 3. Washington pitching re-asserted itself to pull out a 2-1 win in Game 4. In the decisive fifth game in the nation’s capital, the Nationals jumped out to a 6-0 lead. St. Louis chipped back into the game, but still trailed 7-5 in the ninth inning. Just like in their championship year of 2011, the Cardinals got down to their last out. Then they scored four runs and pulled out a 9-7 stunner.
An exciting night in the Bronx for Game 1 of the ALCS made it look like a classic series might be ahead. Detroit blew a ninth-inning lead, before rallying to win in 12 innings. As it turned out, that burst of momentum was all the Tigers needed. The Yankee bats fell silent and scored just two runs over the next three games. Detroit continued their late-season surge by sweeping New York.
After fighting their way into the playoffs, winning in Atlanta, and rallying in Washington, St. Louis seemed almost destined to repeat. Winning three of the first four games, with Game 5 in their own backyard, only added to that sense. It was time for another plot twist. For the second consecutive series, San Francisco won three straight do-or-die games. Moreover, they won them decisively—the combined final score was 20-1. The lasting image of the decisive game was Giant second baseman Marco Scutaro, the series MVP, standing in the pouring rain looking like a scene out of the classic movie Shawshank Redemption.
San Francisco and Detroit might have been the 3-seeds, but they were the teams getting hot at the right time. As it turned out, the Tigers were at the end of their run. The Giants were just getting started. San Francisco third baseman Pablo Sandoval put on an electric show for the home fans in Game 1, hitting three home runs. An 8-3 Giants rout set the tone. The remaining games of the series were close, but they had one common theme—San Francisco won them all. A pair of 2-0 wins put them on the brink, and an extra-inning triumph closed out a sweep.
For the second time in three years, the Giants were World Series champs.