Season's thrilling final day only the beginning

Season's thrilling final day only the beginning

As it turns out, the last day of the 2014 Major League Baseball regular season was about as spectacular as they come.

Washington starter Jordan Zimmermann decided to cap off his season for the team with the best record in the National League by, oh, just throwing a no-hitter. With a ridiculous catch by rookie Steven Souza Jr., that might have been the best ever to seal a no-no.

One of the sport's all-time icons, Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, played the last game of his career and singled home a run in his final at-bat.

Another franchise legend, White Sox slugger Paul Konerko, hung up his spikes in Chicago.

A guy who might be 5-foot-6 on a good day, Jose Altuve of the Houston Astros, rapped out two more hits to claim the American League batting title.

And guess what? Even after all that, the most dramatic part of the season hasn't even begun. Day No. 162 had its stellar and unforgettable individual moments, to be sure, but it also set into stone the postseason schedule that we've all been waiting for.

Entering Sunday, quite a few loose ends still needed to be tied together, and they were all knotted up very cleanly and nicely by the end of a frenzied, historic day.

The Nationals already had home-field advantage through the NL Championship Series, if they make it that far, but they didn't have a no-hitter. That changed Sunday, with Zimmermann blanking the Marlins, 1-0, although it might not have happened if not for the spectacular, game-ending catch by Souza, a late-inning defensive replacement.

Elsewhere, there were other celebrations going on.

The Cardinals became NL Central champions when the Pirates lost to Cincinnati and the Tigers won the AL Central by shutting out the Twins. For Detroit, a grueling pennant race came to a close with a victory while the Wild Card Game-bound Royals won as well.

"Battle-tested teams are always better," Detroit second baseman Ian Kinsler said. "To be able to put up with those things and to overcome what we've overcome definitely makes us a tougher team. Now the goal's just to prove it."

The Oakland A's proved it, too, locking up the other AL Wild Card spot by beating the Rangers, 4-0, and eliminating the pesky Mariners, who beat the Angels on their last game of the season.

"There's been a lot of ups and downs this year," Oakland shortstop Jed Lowrie said. "But we punched our ticket, and that's all that matters."

***

Now comes even more fun.

There will not be any Game 163 tiebreakers on Monday, which means the terrific 10 teams that have made it this far can enjoy a bit of time for travel and rest and minimal reflection. After all, these clubs surely feel there's a lot more to accomplish.

First we will look to Tuesday's AL Wild Card Game matchup in Kansas City (8:07 p.m. ET on TBS), where the Royals will be riding the emotion associated with qualifying for their first postseason since their World Series championship season of 1985 and will host the A's, who have been in the playoffs in each of the last two years but couldn't make it past the Division Series.

The Royals will surprise absolutely no one who knows anything about baseball by giving the start to "Big Game" James Shields, a veteran of October in seasons past with Tampa Bay and an ace they've leaned on all year and who has an ERA of 2.31 in September, in which his team has won four of his five starts.

"This is what it's all about, it's what playoff baseball is all about," Shields said. "You've got to push aside some of your aches and pains and go after it."

That's what the A's will do despite a rough patch of play down the stretch. They'll start another pitcher with a storied tradition of excellence in the playoffs in left-hander Jon Lester. Oakland traded away slugger Yoenis Cespedes to get Lester at the Trade Deadline for reasons just like this one.

The A's have good numbers on their side, with Lester owning a 9-3 record and 1.84 ERA in 13 regular-season starts against Kansas City, and they'll be hoping that his experience will be the key in pushing them forward to an AL Division Series matchup against the top-seeded Angels, with that best-of-five set beginning in Anaheim on Thursday.

And in the NL Wild Card Game that takes place Wednesday night in PNC Park, the Pittsburgh Pirates will have numbers on their side, as in a black-clad, crazed crowd that will likely bring the noise against the San Francisco Giants as well as they did last year while rooting their team on to a home Wild Card Game triumph over Cincinnati.

The Giants will start 18-game winner Madison Bumgarner and the Pirates will throw 13-game winner Edinson Volquez, and the Giants are looking forward to the challenge, regardless of venue.

"Right now we're not guaranteed another game at home," outfielder Hunter Pence said in a speech to his hometown fans. "It's another part of the journey."

The same journey, which all 10 qualifiers hope ends with World Series rings, begins this week.

The survivor of the Giants-Pirates game will travel to Washington, D.C., to face the high-flying Nationals in the best-of-five NL Division Series that begins Friday. The other NLDS, which pits the NL Central champion Cardinals against the NL West champion Dodgers in a rematch of last year's NLCS, opens Friday in Los Angeles, with probable NL Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw likely going for the Dodgers against Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright.

"At the end of the day, we're the defending National League champions, so someone is going to have to take that belt from us," St. Louis second baseman Matt Carpenter said. "That's how we're going to approach it. If it doesn't happen again, it's because somebody will come and take it from us, not because we're not ready to go."

In the AL, the Angels will host the Wild Card Game winner beginning Thursday, although Angels manager Mike Scioscia hasn't revealed his rotation for the series. The Tigers and Orioles will start the other ALDS in Baltimore on Thursday, with Baltimore giving the ball to Chris Tillman and Max Scherzer getting the start for Detroit.

"It should be fun," Orioles GM Dan Duquette said. "This is a good group. They are good, resilient, gritty baseball players. And I like our chances with this group."

He's not the only one who feels that way at the beginning of what's sure to be a wild and wonderful October.

Tuesday's AL Wild Card Game

Athletics (Lester, 16-11) at Royals (Shields, 14-8), 8:07 p.m. Preview

Lester has a 6-4 record and 2.11 ERA in 13 playoff appearances (11 starts). Shields is 2-4 with a 4.98 ERA in six postseason appearances, all starts.

Wednesday's NL Wild Card Game

Giants (Bumgarner, 18-10) at Pirates (Volquez, 13-10), 8:07 p.m. Preview

Bumgarner is 3-2 with a 3.79 ERA in seven playoff outings (six starts). Volquez's only postseason appearance was a loss for Cincinnati against Philadelphia in the 2010 NLDS in which he gave up four runs on four hits in a 1 2/3-inning start.

2014 MLB POSTSEASON MATCHUPS

AMERICAN LEAGUE

Wild Card Game: Athletics at Royals
Division Series: Athletics/Royals winner at Angels | Tigers at Orioles

NATIONAL LEAGUE

Wild Card Game: Giants at Pirates
Division Series: Giants/Pirates winner at Nationals | Cardinals at Dodgers

2014 postseason schedule

AL Wild Card Game

Athletics at Royals, Tuesday, 8:07 p.m. ET on TBS

NL Wild Card Game

Giants at Pirates, Wednesday, 8:07 p.m. ET on ESPN

AL Division Series

Game 1: Athletics/Royals winner at Angels, Thursday, TBD
Game 2: Athletics/Royals winner at Angels, Friday, TBD
Game 3: Angels at Athletics/Royals winner, Sunday, TBD
Game 4*: Angels at Athletics/Royals winner, Monday, Oct. 6, TBD
Game 5*: Athletics/Royals winner at Angels, Wednesday, Oct. 8, TBD
* - if necessary

Game 1: Tigers at Orioles, Thursday, TBD
Game 2: Tigers at Orioles, Friday, TBD
Game 3: Orioles at Tigers, Sunday, TBD
Game 4*: Orioles at Tigers, Monday, Oct. 6, TBD
Game 5*: Tigers at Orioles, Wednesday, Oct. 8, TBD
* - if necessary

NL Division Series

Game 1: Giants/Pirates winner at Nationals, Friday, TBD
Game 2: Giants/Pirates winner at Nationals, Saturday, TBD
Game 3: Nationals at Giants/Pirates winner, Monday, Oct. 6, TBD
Game 4*: Nationals at Giants/Pirates winner, Tuesday, Oct. 7, TBD
Game 5*: Giants/Pirates winner at Nationals, Thursday, Oct. 9, TBD
* - if necessary

Game 1: Cardinals at Dodgers, Friday, TBD
Game 2: Cardinals at Dodgers, Saturday, TBD
Game 3: Dodgers at Cardinals, Monday, Oct. 6, TBD
Game 4*: Dodgers at Cardinals, Tuesday, Oct. 7, TBD
Game 5*: Cardinals at Dodgers, Thursday, Oct. 9, TBD
* - if necessary

AL Championship Series begins: Oct. 10
NL Championship Series begins: Oct. 11
World Series begins: Oct. 21

Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @DougMillerMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.