What began at the end of February in the spring training sites at Florida and Arizona comes to fruition this week after a grueling 162-game major league baseball schedule over the last six months as eight teams hopeful of playing in the upcoming 2010 World Series begin playoff action this week.

The final standings after Sunday’s action reveals a few surprises both with the teams that did make the playoffs and a couple of teams favored to win their divisions who will be home watching the action on television.

Perhaps the biggest surprises occurred in the National League where both the Cincinnati Reds and San Francisco Giants came out of nowhere to have great seasons and win their respective divisions.

The Reds overtook the heavily-favored St. Louis Cardinals and won the NL Central Division by five games. The biggest difference was that Cincinnati had a winning record (42-39) on the road compared to the Cardinals’ 34-47 record away from St. Louis.

Cincinnati clinched the division last week against our Houston Astros and popped champagne and smoked victory cigars in their clubhouse after the victory. According to the Cincinnati Enquirer somebody turned them in for disregarding the law banning smoking in a public building, creating somewhat of a problem with the city.

San Francisco played well during the final few weeks of the season to win the NL West by two games over the equally-surprising San Diego Padres. The two teams finished the season with a weekend series at San Diego that went right down to the final game Sunday which was won by the Giants 3-0.

The Giants finally clinched the division championship on their third try against the Padres at home, winning by a shutout on Sunday to capture their first division crown and playoff berth since 2003.

Actually the Los Angeles Dodgers were the preseason favorites to win the NL West Division, but they could never get going and ended the season under .500 at 80-82. Colorado also was mentioned in the preseason polls, but had a rough stretch during the summer.

Philadelphia won the NL East Division again which was no big surprise, although the Atlanta Braves, who won the NL Wild Card for the first time for retiring manager Bobby Cox with a 91-71 record, were also favored in the preseason along with the New York Mets. The Braves had won 14 straight division titles with Cox, but had missed the playoffs since 2005.

But the biggest surprise came in the American League where the defending World Champion New York Yankees were edged by the upstart Tampa Bay Rays on the last day of the season when the Rays nosed out Kansas City 3-2 in 12 innings while the Bronx Bombers were toppled by their nemesis Boston Red Sox 8-4. The Yankees had to settle for the AL Wild Card, missing out on their second straight AL East title.

“In New York you’re expected to make the playoffs,” Yankee manager Joe Girardi pointed out. “The goal is not to win the division. The goal is to win the whole thing.”

But the team that won its division by the largest margin was the Texas Rangers, who captured the AL West by nine games over Oakland. The preseason pick by many baseball writers was the Los Angeles Angels, who finished in third place with an 80-82 record.

The playoffs begin Wednesday with the Rangers meeting the Rays in Game One at Tampa Bay starting at 12:37 p.m.  The other AL playoff game is between the Yankees and Twins in Minnesota with the game beginning at 7:37 p.m.

One National League playoff game also is slated Wednesday with Cincinnati visiting the Phillies in Philadelphia at 4:07 p.m. The Atlanta Braves play the Giants in San Francisco Thursday at 8:37 p.m. All playoff games will be televised on TBS.

Our Houston Astros kind of finished the season the same way they started it, going 3-7 in the final 10 games and ending up in fourth place in the NL Central Division with a 76-86 record. They were in third place during most of September, but were overtaken by Milwaukee (77-85), which was 6-4 in the final two weeks of the season.

Josh Hamilton of the Texas Rangers was the top hitter in the majors with a .359 batting average. Toronto’s Jose Bautista was the leading slugger with 54 home runs and Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera was the RBI leader, driving in 126 runs.

KWICKIES…When former West Orange Stark and Texas Longhorns star Earl Thomas picked off his third pass of the young NFL season Sunday for the Seattle Seahawks against the St. Louis Rams, his total was greater than that of many NFL teams. For example the Houston Texans had no interceptions until Sunday against Oakland when they picked off two passes. Earl is an integral part of Seattle’s defense against the run and is third on the team with 23 tackles, behind veteran Lawyer Milloy (29) and Lofa Tatupu (25) and second on the team in solo stops with 19.

One of the first managerial firings to occur since the end of the 2010 major league season was Pittsburgh’s John Russell Monday morning, whose Pirate teams lost 299 games in his three years at the helm.

Thanks to an impressive 31-24 road victory over the Oakland Raiders Sunday combined with the Indianapolis Colts being upset 31-28 on a last second franchise-record 59-yard field goal by Jacksonville’s John Scobee, the Houston Texans are sitting comfortably atop the AFC South Division with a 3-1 record.

And speaking about game-winning field goals, for the second week in a row Bridge City native Matt Bryant booted a 42-yarder with two seconds left to give the Atlanta Falcons a 16-14 victory over the San Francisco 49ers Sunday. Last week Bryant kicked a 46-yard field goal in overtime to beat the defending world champion New Orleans Saints.

The University of Texas Longhorns fell out of the Associated Press Top 25 College Football Poll for the first time since Nov. 23, 1998 after Saturday’s 28-20 loss in Dallas to Oklahoma. Alabama retained its No. 1 ranking with Ohio State No. 2. Oregon jumped on notch to third by switching places with Boise State. TCU remained No. 5, Oklahoma moved up two places to No. 6, Nebraska dropped on spot to No. 7, Oklahoma jumped two places to No. 8, Arizona moved up from No. 14 to No. 9 and Utah moved up three spots to No. 10. Four new members to the Top 25 are Oklahoma State (No. 22), Florida State (No. 23), Missouri (No. 24) and Air Force (No. 25).

JUST BETWEEN US…Hunter Pence, who led the Houston Astros with 25 home runs and 91 RBIs, was named the Astros’ Most Valuable Player Sunday in a vote by the Houston chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. Brett Myers was a unanimous selection as Pitcher of the Year after finishing the season 14-8 with a 3.14 ERA. Rookie of the Year was unanimous as Chris Johnson was the choice with his .308 batting average and .481 slugging percentage. Geoff Blum won the Darryl Kile “Good Guy” award for being such a strong presence in the community, in the clubhouse and talking to fans via the media. However on a sadder note General Manager Ed Wade said Blum’s 2011 option for $1.65 million will not be picked up by the team. Blum could be one of just two free agents parting ways with the Astros, with Brian Moehler being the other possibility. The team is expected to exercise the $900,000 option on outfielder Jason Michaels.