Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 5, 2017

The Postseason Starts With Wild Card Drama

For both the participants and their fans, the two opening games of the baseball playoffs are a jarring change from the routine of the longest season. For six months, from the chill of early spring through midsummer’s heat and on into the crisp days of autumn, the Great Game’s calendar unfolds at a languid pace. Teams meet in multi-game series, more often than not of three contests at a time. String together two or three of those and one has defined a home stand for the host squad. While traditional rivalries capture attention, ultimately each game, all 162 of them, is equally important in the standings.

Then the postseason begins with each league’s Wild Card Game, and suddenly for four teams all the work that has gone before hangs in the balance of a single contest, and the sense of desperation in both the dugouts and the stands is palpable. Mutual elimination games are common in the postseason tournaments of other sports. The win or go home atmosphere adds to the frenzy of March Madness and the theater of the NFL’s road to the Super Bowl. But starting with the Boston Americans’ rallying from a three games to one deficit for four straight wins to defeat the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1903’s inaugural best-of-nine World Series, baseball’s postseason has always been about multi-game series.

That was true through the long decades of the last century, as the World Series settled in at a best-of-seven affair, and even as each expanding league split into divisions and an opening League Championship Series was added in 1969, and then further expansion created three-division leagues that necessitated the addition of a Wild Card team and a preliminary Division Series round in 1995.

The Marlins became the first Wild Card entrant to claim a title in 1997. Five years later a second Wild Card turned World Series champion was guaranteed when the best second place team in both leagues advanced to the Fall Classic, with the Angels beating the Giants in seven games. That was the first of three straight Series going to a Wild Card and six consecutive years in which one made it to October’s final round. The success rate led to the suggestion that teams that were making it into the postseason without even winning their division were not being penalized sufficiently for their regular season shortcomings. Along with a desire to bring more franchises into the late season playoff chase mix, this in turn resulted in 2012’s introduction of a second Wild Card in each league, with the two best second place squads engaging in a one game play-in game for the right to advance to the Division Series.

Mutual elimination games are obviously possible in a multi-game series, but most of the time a winner is crowned before the maximum number of contests is reached. Since the advent of the second Wild Card there have been thirty-five multi-game series in the three playoff rounds, with just thirteen, or less than forty percent, going the distance. Ten of the thirteen have been in the best-of-five Division Series. In the longer best-of-seven series, only the 2012 NLCS and the 2014 and 2016 World Series have been stretched to a Game Seven.

In that same period fans have seen St. Louis spot Atlanta a pair of runs in 2012 before rallying to win the first National League play-in game 6-3. As the first Wild Card the luckless Pittsburgh Pirates had home field three years running. But after easily handling the Reds 6-2 in 2013, Pittsburgh’s batters managed just nine hits and not a single run in the next two Wild Card games combined, losing 8-0 to the Giants in 2014 and 4-0 to the Cubs one year later. The Giants prevailed again on the road in last year’s NL Wild Card, breaking a scoreless tie with three 9th inning runs to silence a full house of Mets fans at Citi Field.

The American League has seen Houston’s Dallas Keuchel dominate the Yankees in the Bronx in 2015, just one of several reminders that in any single game home field may not prove that much of an advantage. In the ten play-in games prior to this year, the visiting team won seven. That trend started in the very first year, when the Cardinals won on the road and Tampa Bay shut out Cleveland at Progressive Field, after surviving a one-game playoff against Texas, needed when the Rays and Rangers finished tied for the second Wild Card spot.

The most dramatic victory by a home team prior to this year was in 2014, when the Kansas City Royals came to bat in the bottom of the 8th trailing Oakland 7-3, just six outs from the end of their season. But the home squad plated three in the 8th and one more in the 9th to force extra innings. The A’s reclaimed the lead in the top of the 12th, only to have the Royals respond with two of their own for the victory. Catcher Salvador Perez struck the decisive blow, a single to left that brought Christian Colon home from second with the winning run.

This year’s contests were especially worthy of the title “wild.” In the Bronx on Tuesday night, the Stadium went from raucous to funereal and back in the space of a very long 1st inning. Yankee fans roared with approval when ace Luis Severino took the mound, only to sit in stunned silence when he allowed a leadoff home run by Minnesota’s Brian Dozier, and a two-run shot by Eddie Rosario just three batters later. A single and a double followed, prompting New York manager Joe Girardi to go to his bullpen with just one out in the 1st inning.

But reliever Chad Green slammed to door on the Twins with a pair of strikeouts, and then New York evened the score in the bottom of the frame, with shortstop Didi Gregorius stroking a three-run homer to right after Brett Gardner led off with a walk and Aaron Judge followed with a single. Green, David Robertson, Tommy Kahnle and Aroldis Chapman combined for twenty-six outs from the Yankees bullpen, while Gardner and Judge both homered as New York pulled away from Minnesota 8-4.

One night later and more than 2,000 miles to the west, the Arizona Diamondbacks jumped on the Colorado Rockies early, scoring three in the 1st, one in the 2nd and two more in the 3rd to take a commanding lead. But the Rockies refused to go quietly, finally getting to Arizona starter Zack Greinke in the 4th inning. As fans in Phoenix nervously cheered on their heroes, Colorado twice closed to within a run, at 6-5 and 8-7. Finally, in the bottom of the 8th center fielder A. J. Pollock plated two with Arizona’s fourth triple of the game, sealing the win for the Diamondbacks.

There are plenty of baseball people who don’t like the play-in game. They lobby for a best-of-three and cite, with good reason, not just tradition but the random nature of the Great Game. For all that has gone before, a season could be undone by a single fluky play in a game that is win or go home. But the reality of the schedule is that short of having the World Series compete with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, this contest is here to stay. And with plenty of drama and tension on every pitch, the Wild Card play-in game makes for an electric start to the Great Game’s postseason.

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