It began with a home run in the middle of a snowstorm and ended with a celebration at Minute Maid Park as the Braves captured their first title in 26 years. In between, the 2021 season provided us with a treasure trove of truly unforgettable moments.
Narrowing down this list to just 10 proved to be a challenge. Coming off the abridged 2020 campaign, a full 162-game season was the gift that kept on giving for seven straight months. That bevy of baseball content created an embarrassment of riches from which to choose.
There were plenty of omissions left on the cutting room floor that easily could have been included: Francisco Lindor’s three-homer game against the Yankees; Randy Arozarena’s stealing home in the playoffs; the wild 13th inning of Game 3 of the ALDS between Boston and Tampa Bay; this catch by Billy Hamilton in the pouring rain, among many, many others.
The goal of this exercise was to identify 10 moments that, when taken as a whole, could serve as a tapestry of sorts that encapsulates the year that was. Hopefully, the end result is a worthwhile attempt to tell the story of a baseball season in 10 parts. Without further ado—and in chronological order—here are the most indelible moments of 2021.
1. Trey Mancini comes home (April 8)
When he took the field at Fenway Park on April 2, it had been 552 days since Mancini had played in an MLB game. Stage III colon cancer temporarily robbed him of his dream career, and the long road back was not without seemingly endless challenges. But it was his return to his home park, Camden Yards, six days later where Mancini really made it back to where he belonged.
“Even though it was 25% capacity, it felt like a full stadium out there,” Mancini said after the game, per MLB.com’s Joe Trezza. “It was amazing. It was nothing short of what I expected. We have the best fans in baseball here, and no matter what, they love us. That meant the world to me.”
Mancini ended up playing in 147 games in 2021, hitting 21 homers with 71 RBIs and winning the American League’s Comeback Player of the Year award. There hasn’t been much to cheer about for Orioles fans in recent years, but Mancini’s journey from fighting for his life to getting back to the big leagues was undoubtedly among the most inspirational feats of the season.
2. Will Craig loses the plot (May 27)
Some moments on this list showcase players operating at the highest levels possible. Others fall into the “too important to leave off” category. This is neither of those. With two outs and a runner on second in the top of the third inning, shortstop Javier Báez, then with the Cubs, hit a routine grounder to third base. The throw pulled Pirates first baseman Craig off the bag. Then, chaos reigned, as Craig strayed so far from the proper course of action and created a mess that perfectly summed up what would become a 101-loss campaign for the Pirates:
It would be easy to deride Craig’s blunder as inept, but the truth is that, at one time or another, we’ve all played the Craig role at some point in our lives. Maybe we’ve made a boneheaded mistake at work, or said the absolute wrong thing in front of the wrong person, or found a way to screw up the most mundane task when doing so would have seemed impossible.
I’ve viewed this play dozens of times by now, and even though I know what the outcome’s going to be, I make a silent plea with each viewing for Craig to please, just please, step on first base. Though he never does, there is comfort to be found in this piece of performance art: Despite his miscue, the world kept spinning, the sun arose the next morning and Craig took the field in Pittsburgh’s next game (a 7–0 win over the Rockies). The lesson here, if there is one to be learned, is that even after our worst days, there will always be chances to have a better one tomorrow.
3. MLB cracks down on sticky stuff (June 22)
There was a time, before MLB’s decision to systematically monitor the illegal use of grip-enhancing substances by players throughout the game, when the average fan gave absolutely zero thought to the use of what’s now commonly known as “sticky stuff.” By season’s end, the mid-inning checks of pitchers by umpires were routine. But in between, following a Sports Illustrated investigation by Stephanie Apstein and Alex Prewitt, the league’s abrupt decision to crack down on what was described by one MLB team executive as “the biggest scandal in sports” sent players into a frenzy.
The new protocols went into effect June 21, and it took less than 24 hours for pitchers to start losing their minds. Exhibits A and B: Max Scherzer and Sergio Romo. In Scherzer’s start against the Phillies, Philadelphia manager Joe Girardi requested umpires check the pitcher for the third time of the night, prompting a performance from the salty righthander that was very on brand. Romo would eventually top Scherzer’s antics, dropping his pants on the field in a move that would make Magic Mike blush.
The new protocols had an immediate and drastic impact on the game, and one that should have a prolonged effect for years to come. MLB got itself into this sticky situation through decades of turning the other cheek, then hastily tried to correct that inactivity in the middle of a season. Bumps in the road were inevitable with this kind of rollout, and fans should be thankful that the end result included theatrics like Scherzer’s and Romo’s tantrums.
4. If you build it, they will come (Aug. 12)
The league sought to create a spectacle by hosting an actual MLB game in the middle of an Iowa cornfield and absolutely nailed it. In addition to becoming the most-watched regular-season game since 2005—drawing nearly six million viewers—this game between the Yankees and White Sox provided a dramatic ending that even Hollywood couldn’t have topped.
In a world where we can all agree on so little, you’d be hard pressed to find anybody who thinks a walk-off home run into rows of corn isn’t awesome. MLB will host another Field of Dreams game, between the Cubs and Reds, next season. Like all movies, it’ll be tough for the sequel to top the original.
5. Tyler Gilbert goes the distance (Aug. 14)
Of all the labels that could be ascribed to this past season, 2021 was undoubtedly the Year of the No-Hitter. Before taking the mound on Aug. 14, Gilbert had 3 2/3 big-league innings to his name and zero starts. In 102 pitches, Gilbert joined the esteemed company of Bobo Holloman (1953), Bumpus Jones (1892) and Ted Breitenstein (1891) to throw a no-hitter in his first start.
Gilbert’s no-hitter was the eighth of the season, setting a new record for most in a single year. Milwaukee’s Corbin Burnes and Josh Hader would combine for the ninth and final no-hitter of the year a month later. By the time Corey Kluber notched the sixth no-no of the year before the end of May, it was a near certainty that a new record would be established. But no matter how predestined that record seemed, no one could have foreseen a pitcher making his first start being the one to do it.
6. Shohei Ohtani does it all (Aug. 18)
A list of the top moments from the 2021 season would be incomplete without featuring Ohtani. But how do you choose a single moment from a year when Ohtani did something never before seen nearly every night? Ohtani didn’t just reach heights not seen since Babe Ruth a century ago—he surpassed them. The numbers are cartoonish: 46 home runs, 100 RBIs, 26 stolen bases, a 3.18 ERA and 9–2 record across 130 1/3 innings.
While identifying just one moment from Ohtani’s tour de force is difficult, it’s hard to go wrong picking his performance against the Tigers on Aug. 18. That night, he got through eight innings on the mound for the first time in his career, allowing just one run with eight strikeouts and no walks. He also crushed his 40th home run of the season deep into the right field stands to give himself an insurance run in the eighth.
This marked the first and only time Ohtani homered and got the win in the same game. We might never see a full season as breathtakingly dominant as the one he put together in 2021, but it’s difficult to envision subsequent year-in-review lists not including Ohtani for the foreseeable future.
7. Miggy joins the 500 club (Aug. 22)
Injuries, diminished athleticism and a seven-year playoff drought by the Tigers might have caused casual observers to forget just how dominant Cabrera has been throughout his big league career. Through his first 14 seasons, one of the best hitters of his generation batted .321/.399/.562 with 446 home runs and a 155 OPS+. His five-year run from 2011 to ’15 was among the most dominant a hitter can be: four batting titles, two MVP awards, a 170 OPS+ and the first Triple Crown in 45 years. He might not have resembled his old self in some time, but joining the 500 club provided a much-deserved moment of recognition from the game at large.
Swan songs are difficult to pull off, and at 38 years old with two years left on his contract, Cabrera is still writing his. Whenever and however it’s finished, it will cap one of the greatest individual efforts the modern game has ever seen, with this historic blast just one lasting moment in a career full of them.
8. The Cards go streaking (Sept. 11–28)
On Sept. 10, the Cardinals lost to the Reds to drop their record to 71–69, barely keeping their heads above water in the hunt for a playoff spot. Then, a funny thing happened: They couldn’t stop winning.
St. Louis ripped off 17 wins in a row, the most in franchise history and the longest streak in the National League since 1935. At the start of the streak, FanGraphs gave the Cardinals a meager 5.0% chance to make the postseason. When it ended, the team had clinched a wild-card berth. There’s no single, Scott Hatteberg–esque moment that stands representative of the streak as a whole. But the 18-day stretch when the Cardinals never lost a game will linger in the minds of anybody who checked the out-of-town scoreboard during that run and had the same reaction when their eyes finally found the St. Louis score: “Seriously? They did it again?”
9. The Giants check out early (Oct. 14)
For six months, the Giants painted a Picasso of a regular season that stood tall over all that had come before it in the history of the franchise. Then, in the most sudden and cruel way imaginable, it was all over.
With two outs and the tying run on first base in the bottom of the ninth, Wilmer Flores appeared to successfully check his swing with an 0–2 count. First base umpire Gabe Morales thought otherwise, deeming Flores to have swung the bat and ended the game with the Dodgers moving on to the NLCS.
The Giants had the best record in the majors, yet had to play the team with the second-best record in the first round because of the way MLB structured its postseason bracket. To have that series end on a clear-as-day missed call is not the fate that series deserved, and it sent San Francisco into a premature offseason. The lesson to take away here: Baseball, like life, can be cruel and unfair sometimes.
10. Soler power (Nov. 2)
Atlanta’s run to the Fall Classic is among the most improbable in recent history. It took the Braves 111 games to spend a day over .500, which they finally did on Aug. 6. Three months later, they were World Series champions for the first time since 1995.
While Atlanta’s road to a title had plenty of standouts, none stood out more than Jorge Soler’s three-run homer in the third inning of Game 6, which gave the Braves all the run support they needed to put the Astros away for good.
Any anxieties Atlanta fans had of enduring another postseason collapse were bludgeoned into submission with Soler’s 446-foot shot. It was the most breathtaking blast at Minute Maid Park since Albert Pujols's deafening, game-winning dinger off Brad Lidge in Game 5 of the 2005 NLCS.
The Braves cruised to the finish line from there, with Soler securing World Series MVP honors. It can be debated whether 2021 featured a moment “better” than this one. But few could argue that, of all the swings from last season, Soler’s fateful swat was the loudest of them all.
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