You can’t script this sort of thing. If writers decreed that there would be six Major League Baseball teams fighting for one spot on the season’s final day, the idea would be shot down as too unrealistic. And yet, in another example of truth being stranger than fiction, that’s exactly what happened.
I’m speaking, of course, about the heated race for the second pick in next year’s MLB draft. In the end, five games helped settle the issue. Of those five, three were decided by one run. There were predictable bullpen meltdowns, surprising bullpen holds, and even a walk-off homer. In other words, more drama was packed in than anyone had a right to expect. (I still think a Lentz Cup would be even more exciting, but let us not dwell on that now, instead appreciating what the baseball gods have bestowed upon us this year.)
Thanks to a truly miserable season, the Minnesota Twins ran away with the first pick overall. They finished with nine more losses than anyone else in baseball, so hearty congratulations to them on that fine achievement. But number two, as so often is the case, was a far messier affair.
Here’s how the race stood entering the final day (with the tiebreaker being each team’s 2015 record):
- Tampa Bay Rays: 67-94
- Atlanta Braves: 67-93
- Cincinnati Reds: 68-93 (64-98 in 2015)
- Oakland A’s: 68-93 (68-94)
- San Diego Padres: 68-93 (74-88)
- Arizona Diamondbacks: 68-93 (79-83)
The Rays found themselves in an excellent position to retain their draft slot, as they were scheduled to face the Texas Rangers on the road. The Rangers owned the American League’s best record coming into the season finale.
The Braves played at home but had to face Justin Verlander and a Detroit Tigers team that barely missed the playoffs. The Reds also had a home date, against the Chicago Cubs, the only team to reach the 100-wins mark this year. The A’s played at Seattle against the Mariners, another team that just missed.
That’s four games that all looked pretty lopsided on paper. And then there was the fifth: a battle between the hapless Padres and the equally hapless Diamondbacks in Phoenix. It was as every bit as epic as you might expect, but we’re getting ahead of the story.
One cool thing about the day is that all the games started at roughly the same time, 3 p.m. ET, so you could actually watch the drama unfold in real time. Some games took longer than others—the Rays and the Rangers needed four hours to complete their contest, while the A’s and the Mariners finished in a few ticks over two and a half—but generally speaking, there was plenty of reason to keep an eye on the scoreboard throughout the afternoon.
In Arlington, the Rays jumped out to an early lead. Thanks to the unlikely contributions of Curt Casali, Jaff Decker, Alexei Ramirez, and Luke Maile, they found themselves up 4-2 after seven innings.
The Braves likewise got on top of the Tigers, scoring on a Freddie Freeman sacrifice fly in the first after Ender Inciarte and Adonis Garcia had led off the inning with singles. Atlanta maintained that narrow 1-0 margin through the seventh.
The Reds shocked Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks, who entered the game with a sub-2.00 ERA, with a three-run outburst in the opening frame. But the Cubs, as great teams will do, kept chipping away at the home team’s lead. After seven, they trailed 4-2.
And in Seattle, the A’s scored one run in the first and two more in the third against Felix Hernandez. The Mariners answered with two of their own in the fifth, with the A’s clinging to that 3-2 lead headed to the eighth.
You can probably guess what happened in Phoenix. Arizona tallied a run in the second, and the Padres answered with one in the fourth and added another in the seventh to take a 2-1 lead.
To recap, here’s how things looked after seven innings in each contest:
- Rays 4, Rangers 2
- Braves 1, Tigers 0
- Reds 4, Cubs 2
- A’s 3, Mariners 2
- Padres 2, Diamondbacks 1
That’s three one-run games and two two-run games, with possible upsets in Arlington, Detroit, Chicago, and Seattle. In all four games that featured a favorite (and a heavy favorite at that), the underdog was leading after seven. If the season had ended here, this is what the draft order would have looked like:
- Arizona Diamondbacks: 68-94 (79-83 in 2015)
- Tampa Bay Rays: 68-94 (80-82)
- Atlanta Braves: 68-93
- Cincinnati Reds: 69-93 (64-98)
- Oakland A’s: 69-93 (68-94)
- San Diego Padres: 69-93 (74-88)
The Diamondbacks would have jumped all the way from the seventh spot to the second (thanks to losing one more game than the Rays last year), with everyone else remaining in the same order but down a slot. All Arizona had to do to secure that second pick was fail to score in the final two innings.
Ah, but the eighth inning is where our story really begins. Because as we all know, games are played not on paper but on a diamond, where anything can happen.
The Rays surrendered single runs in the eighth and the ninth. Alex Colome blew only his third save in 40 opportunities, forcing extra innings. Maybe Tampa Bay would overtake Arizona and move up into that second slot after all. Alas, such hope was short-lived, as the Rangers’ Tanner Scheppers started the tenth by allowing a single, two doubles, and a wild pitch to give the visitors a 6-4 lead they would not relinquish. So much for picking second.
Meanwhile, in Atlanta, the Tigers never could get anything going against Julio Teheran and two relievers. They had only two men in scoring position all day, neither of whom made it to third base. The Braves held on to win, 1-0.
The Reds, though, did their part. Blake Wood coughed up a run in the eighth to cut their lead to 4-3. Then the real hero, Raisel Iglesias, allowed four more in the ninth (after retiring the first two batters!) to ensure defeat and secure a better draft position for his club.
As for the A’s, after starter Sean Manaea departed, they turned to a bullpen that had been shaky all year. But Liam Hendriks and Daniel Coulombe each worked a scoreless inning, setting the stage for the usually erratic John Axford. Naturally, Axford retired the side to seal the victory and push the A’s further down the draft list. The one time they actually needed him to stink, he didn’t do it.
But by far the costliest comeback came in Phoenix, where Brandon Drury hit a solo homer with two outs in the eighth against Padres left-hander Brad Hand (who entered with a 2.77 ERA) to tie the game. An inning later, pinch-hitter Philip Gosselin singled against Hand with two outs to win it.
In less capable hands, a writer might be tempted to say that the Padres had handed Arizona the victory. But again, the idea that someone named Hand would single-handedly ruin the Diamondbacks’ shot at an all-but-assured second pick in the draft would immediately be rejected by any self-respecting editor. Such an unlikely sequence of events could happen only in reality.
After all the twists and turns had been revealed, here’s what the draft order ended up being:
- Cincinnati Reds: 68-94 (64-98 in 2015)
- San Diego Padres: 68-94 (74-88)
- Tampa Bay Rays: 68-94 (80-82)
- Atlanta Braves: 68-93
- Oakland A’s: 69-93 (68-94)
- Arizona Diamondbacks: 69-93
The Reds, thanks to Iglesias, rose two spots from where they would have picked had the season ended a day earlier. The Padres, thanks to Hand, rose three. The Rays, thanks to their bullpen’s inability to sufficiently blow a late lead, fell two. The Braves, thanks to a surprisingly inept Tigers offense, also fell two spots. The A’s, thanks to a rare Axford success, fell one.
And the big losers, again thanks to Hand, were the Diamondbacks. Although they finished the day right where they started it, in the seventh slot, they let a golden opportunity slip through their hands. If Hand doesn’t cough up those two runs in the final two innings, Arizona picks second overall and the Padres pick seventh. Instead, the order is almost exactly reversed, which could prove huge several years from now when the two division rivals have presumably finished rebuilding and are ready to win again.
So let’s give all the contestants a big round of applause. And let’s give Brad Hand an especially big hand for simultaneously elevating his own team from sixth pick overall to third while destroying the hopes and dreams of all Phoenicians. And lest we be tempted to gloat too much in their demise, remember that there but for the Hand of God go we.
Geoff Young is a baseball writer whose work has appeared at Baseball Prospectus, ESPN.com, and numerous other outlets. You should follow him on Twitter.