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Baseball's best rarely finish on top in October

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Baseball's best rarely finish on top in October

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) Best in baseball? The Detroit Tigers and San Francisco Giants spent much of the season just trying to catch mediocre teams like the Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers just to win their divisions.

Those up-and-down regular seasons are distant memories now that the Giants and Tigers have raced through the playoffs and are getting ready for Game 2 of the World Series in San Francisco on Thursday night.

The Giants trailed the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL West as late as mid-August before making a strong run to win the division and finish tied with the third-best record in the National League.

The Tigers were merely six games over .500 with three weeks left in the regular season and made the playoffs despite posting the seventh-best record in the American League.

``You know what, I think these are the best two teams and the hottest teams, too,'' Tigers reliever Jose Valverde said. ``The first two months, you see Detroit is in last place. Chicago, Cleveland, everybody's laughing. What happened now?''

For much of its history, baseball was a grueling, six-month endurance test, with only the top team in each league going to the postseason.

Now, with six divisions and four wild-card teams, it's more a matter of just getting into the tournament and getting on a roll in October.

``I think ideally you like to see the teams that have the best record end up there,'' Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. ``But as we have mentioned many times, once you get to the playoffs it does become a little bit of a crap shoot, who's playing the best at that time. You understand that. That's why wild-card teams have done well. A lot of them are fighting to get there, but they're also playing well at the right time.''

Both the Giants and Tigers got in as division winners but they were not the top teams in their leagues over the 162-game haul.

Washington finished with baseball's best record this year with 98 wins but fell in the division series to the 88-win St. Louis Cardinals, who won it all the previous year as a wild-card team. The Cardinals won a one-game playoff under the new wild-card format just to get to the divisional series.

Detroit, with 88 wins, finished behind the other four AL playoff teams, as well as the Los Angeles Angels and Tampa Bay Rays despite playing in the AL's weakest division. But the Tigers knocked off AL West champion Oakland in the first round and swept the New York Yankees, who had the AL's best record, in the league championship series.

``You just need to get hot like the Cardinals did last year,'' Tigers outfielder Don Kelly said. ``You have to play your best baseball at the right time. But over the course of the year you have to keep yourself there, you have to keep yourself in it. You can't get too far behind. That's what we talked about a lot as a team. We just had to stay right there because we knew we could pull it out at the end.''

No team had ever finished this low in its league and made it to the Series. The previous low was fifth, by three eventual World Series champions: Minnesota in 1987, the New York Yankees in 2000 and the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals, who beat the Tigers despite winning only 83 games in the regular season.

In the 18 postseasons since the playoffs expanded in 1995, the team with the best overall record in the regular season ended up as World Series champion just three times. The Yankees did it twice, in 1998 and 2009, and Boston accomplished it as well in 2007. That one out of six rate is little better than if the champion was chosen randomly.

More common is a case like the 2004 St. Louis Cardinals, who won 105 games in the regular season but were swept by wild-card winning Boston in the World Series.

``Being on a team in St. Louis in 2004, which was a team pretty much wire to wire was a pretty dominant team, nobody felt sorry for us at any point when we didn't pull it off in the World Series,'' said Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, a catcher the `04 runner-ups. ``But you take your chances, when a team rolls like that. Typically you have enough there to win it all. It's just a matter of the timing and guys taking advantage of the opportunities.''

This is not a phenomenon exclusive to baseball. The NFL and NHL playoffs have often been about determining which team is hottest come playoff time. The Los Angeles Kings won the Stanley Cup in June as an eight seed, the New York Giants were a No. 4 when they beat New England in the Super Bowl in February.

That wasn't the case in baseball during the pre-playoff days. The winner of the National League faced off each fall against the winner of the American League in the World Series. The team with the best record went 38-27 in those Series from 1903 through 1968, according to STATS LLC.

The postseason turned into a bit of a crap shoot once the league broke into divisions, allowing four teams to make the playoffs. The best regular season team won in seven of those 25 seasons before wild-cards were added in 1995.

``If you're asking me, even if it's not us, I always hope that the team that's had the best year, they end up battling to win the World Series,'' Bochy said. ``But it's a great game how we have it set up.''

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AP Sports Writers R.B. Fallstrom and Ronald Blum contributed to this story.

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Bradley Beal's phantom foul and the Wizards' most important rally of the season

Bradley Beal's phantom foul and the Wizards' most important rally of the season

After calling an inconsistent game throughout the night, the referees made a decision with five minutes to go in Game 4 that nearly altered the entire series between the Wizards and Raptors.

DeMar DeRozan was chasing a rebound on the baseline and ran into Bradley Beal. Beal, who had a team-high 31 points, was levied a sixth and final foul with the score tied. 

Beal had unloaded for 20 points in 12 minutes in the second half, but now the Wizards would have to close it out without their All-Star shooting guard. Somehow, they were able to seal the win and tie the series.

Beal heard the whistle as he laid on the ground. He immediately hopped up and unleashed a tantrum that nobody could blame him for.

He jumped up and down, screaming at the referees, who had just called by all accounts a questionable foul and in a key moment of a playoff game.

Both Beal and head coach Scott Brooks were incensed and with good reason.

“I was beyond emotional, beyond mad, frustrated," Beal said. "I honestly thought they were going to kick me out of the game I was so mad, but I was happy they didn’t do that."

Beal is probably lucky the referees didn't take offense to his reaction because it continued when he was on the bench. He walked past his teammates and leaned over with his hands on his knees, still furious. Then he returned to the sideline to yell at the refs. Center Ian Mahinmi helped convince him to step back and cool off.

Beal has made a major difference in this series. He averaged 14.0 points in the first two games, both losses. He has averaged 29.5 points in Games 3 and 4, two Wizards wins.

Getting him out of the game was a major break for the Raptors, but they couldn't take advantage. The Wizards closed the final five minutes on a 14-6 tear. John Wall stepped up to lead the charge with eight of those points.

The Wizards still had one star on the court and he played like one.

“Just go in attack mode," Wall said. "When Brad went out, I knew I had to do whatever it took... I just wanted to do whatever, so that we could advance to Game 5, tied 2-2.”

Once Beal composed himself, his confidence grew in his teammates. He and Wall feel comfortable playing without each other because they have done so often throughout their careers.

This year, Wall missed 41 games due to a left knee injury. Two years ago, Beal missed 27 games. Early on in his career, he had trouble staying healthy. Now he is an iron man who played in all 82 games during the 2017-18 regular season.

Beal has grown accustomed to being on the floor a lot, but he realized he can still affect the game from the sidelines.

"I just gathered my emotions, gathered my thoughts and told my team we were going to win, regardless. I knew if we still had John [Wall] in the game I loved our chances," Beal said. "Face the adversity that I had to overcome, just gather myself and be a leader, being vocal and keeping everyone encouraged in the game.”

Wall and others did the heavy lifting in the end. The Wizards used Kelly Oubre, Jr. as the shooting guard with Beal out and he made key plays down the stretch, including a steal on Kyle Lowry in the closing seconds.

The Wizards were thrown a significant curveball and they overcame it to put themselves in good position now having won two straight.

“You have to have resolve to win in this league," Brooks said. "You win playoff games and you win playoff series with having that. We have that, and we have to continue to have that because we have to win two more games and one of them has to be on the road."

When it comes to the officiating, the Wizards deserve credit for their resilience and restraint early in Game 4. The Raptors had 16 free throws in the first quarter compared to the Wizards' four. Washington perservered and ended up with more free throws (31) than the Raptors (30) did for the game.

In Game 1, the Wizards appeared to be affected by a lack of foul calls. That came was called loosely by the referees, while this one was officiated tightly. Though Beal went off, the Wizards for the most part stayed the course and were rewarded for it.

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The Wizards supplied all the highlights and fireworks; 5 must-see moments from Game 4

The Wizards supplied all the highlights and fireworks; 5 must-see moments from Game 4

WASHINGTON -- As the home team in a dire situation you have to take advantage, and that is exactly what the Washington Wizards did in their 106-98 win over the Toronto Raptors.

Highlight reel play after highlight reel play, the Wizards ignited the crowd with some of their best plays from the entire season to make it 2-2 in the series. Here are just a few of them:

1. John Wall collects posters in the first half

The first one was perhaps the best. Everything was going wrong for the Wizards, poor turnovers, bad shots, a three from Toronto. Then John Wall had enough. Not only did he fly past his defender Kyle Lowry, but he went up and slammed one home past the 7-foot Jonas Valanciunas. Up until that point, the Wizards were shooting 1-for-7.

Rinse and repeat, except this time Jakob Poeltl was Wall’s victim.

2. Wall to Beal alley-oop in transition

With the Wizards’ offense faltering, the Raptors remained on the verge of blowing the game open throughout the second quarter. But with a steal from Otto Porter Jr., Wall hung up the ball for Bradley Beal to slam home. The alley-oop kept the Wizards within single digits in the second with an uninspiring offensive effort.

3. Otto Porter breaks out of the half

A subdued offensive start to the game was due in part to the production from Porter. In the first half he went 0-for-4 with one point in nearly 17 minutes of action.

Throw that away in the second half. He broke out of halftime with back-to-back threes and 10 of the Wizards’ 26 in a monster 26-14 run to take the lead back in the third.

He finished the quarter with 10 points, an assist, and two blocks.

4. The Polish Hammer throwing it home

Are you convinced yet that Marcin Gortat’s new haircut is doing him some good? Gortat squeezed through two Raptors’ defenders, threw it down, gave a Goliath-type roar to the crowd before officially bringing the hammer down. 

5. Beal being called for his sixth foul of the game

Agree with the call or not, there is no denying that Beal’s removal from the game lit a fire underneath the Wizards. From that point Washington went on a 14-6 scoring run to end the game, closing out for the win.

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