There was a lot of uncertainty in Major League Baseball as the COVID-19 pandemic and strife between owners and the players association led to them turning a 162-game schedule into a 60-game slate.
Then 18 Florida Marlins players and seven St. Louis Cardinals players came down with the coronavirus which interrupted their seasons.
But the regular season concluded and eight American League and eight National League teams qualified for the playoffs, which are underway with best-of-three series at the home fields of the higher seeds.
Among the participants are the San Diego Padres, who are making their first playoff appearance in 14 years while taking on St. Louis.
With the Padres in the playoffs, former University of Maine All-American center fielder Mark Sweeney will continue to work as the studio analyst for Fox Sports San Diego.
“It is remarkable how [Major League Baseball] got through this. A lot of work went into it,” Sweeney said of navigating the coronavirus. “They were close to possibly shutting down the season.”
Sweeney owns the major league career record for runs batted in as a pinch-hitter (102) and ranks second in pinch-hits (175) after a 1,218-game stint in the big leagues.
MLB instituted a handful of rule changes during the pandemic. They included playing seven-inning doubleheaders to deal with the short season and to help protect pitchers arms.
Other rules included placing a runner on second base to start every half-inning after the ninth, requiring that every pitcher must face at least three hitters or complete the inning, and using the designated hitter in both leagues.
The National League previously let pitchers bat for themselves.
Sweeney said he expects MLB to reevaluate those experiments and others moving forward.
“Baseball really should be open to making adjustments,” he said. “Baseball adjusted as well as any sport this season. They’ve got to be proud of how it all worked out.”
Sweeney favors using the DH throughout the big leagues because he said fans don’t want to see a pitcher who seldom works on hitting take feeble swings. It also showcases outstanding National League hitters who might not otherwise get a chance to bat.
He used as an example former Boston Red Sox American League Most Valuable Player Mookie Betts, who now plays for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“Everyone wants to see Mookie Betts play. If he needs a break [from playing the outfield], they can use him as the DH,” Sweeney said. “You need to have the stars in the lineup.”
He didn’t mind the seven-inning doubleheaders, which won’t be used in the playoffs. He also said placing a runner on base in extra innings was exciting.
That rule also won’t be in place for the playoffs and Sweeney doesn’t foresee it being used next season, despite the potential impact of long, extra-inning games on pitching staffs.
He doesn’t like the three-batter-minimum rule, despite any reduction in the length of games.
“You want to see close games and you love seeing matchups between pitchers and hitters,” he said.
Sweeney said the three-game first round series could produce some upsets and believes the top seeds don’t gain a huge advantage by playing at home with no fans in the stands.
Sweeney, a Massachusetts native, was sorry to see the Red Sox fire manager Ron Roenicke after Boston’s 24-36 season that was marred by injuries, illness and the trading of good players to reduce the payroll.
“Ron Roenicke is a tremendous baseball man. It wasn’t fair to evaluate him in that situation,” Sweeney said.
“The talk inside baseball is that [suspended former Red Sox manager] Alex Cora is coming back. It would surprise me but I wouldn’t put it past the Red Sox because we know how good he was for them,” Sweeney said.
He expects the Sox to be aggressive courting free-agent pitcher Trevor Bauer, who was 5-4 with a 1.73 earned run average for Cincinnati, and in the trade market.
The Padres had the third-best record in baseball [37-23] during the short season after going 70-92 a year ago. Sweeney said San Diego arguably has the best infield in the game with third baseman Manny Machado, shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr., rookie second baseman Jake Cronenworth and first baseman Eric Hosmer.