Why wildcard entrants in a one-game system instead of a series is baseball’s best idea.
By Kyle Magin
Stephen Piscotty almost died trying to avoid the MLB wildcard game by expressly not avoiding his teammate. The Cardinals outfielder dove into fellow outfielder Peter Borjous’ knee in an attempt to corral a Pittsburgh Pirates’ pop-fly on Monday and went down in a lump of limbs and leather. He needed to be carted off the field in PNC Park before a raucous crowd that was stunned into silence. Thankfully, it looks like he’ll be OK.
But the mere fact that a player on a first-place team assured of a playoff spot this late in the season almost committed baseball harakiri on the field is all the validation anyone needs of the value of the sport’s 2012 decision to add a second wildcard game. It deserves a damn monument for what it’s done to the final weeks of a season. (Minus, of course, the injuries.)
Nothing motivates one of the two best teams in baseball to secure that No. 1 spot in its division like the threat of having to play a one game playoff, where your fate is left to the awful chance that necessitates playoff series and, frankly, a 162-game season. Baseball necessarily elongates everything to even out the divots normal gameplay causes on an everyday basis:
The Phillies beat the Cubs in 5 out of 7 tries.
Rando No. 8 hitters who’ll never again see the big leagues have slugged dingers off of Zack Grienke.
Don Mattingly manages to execute a double-switch once in a blue moon without stabbing himself with the lineup pencil.
That’s why you do anything to avoid leaving your season—your back-breaking labor over 162 games—to the randomness and chance a one-game series will subject you to. It’s why subjecting wildcard entrants to a one-game system instead of a series is baseball’s best idea.
That idea has recently produced the best baseball on the planet.
The Cardinals, Pirates and Cubs (to a slightly lesser extent) have been circling each other like three Battle Royale participants on Bum Fights. Three-to-four games have separated the trio from one another for the past month, when they’ve contested 20 games against one another. The Cardinals will probably come out the winners if only because players like Piscotty dove for balls they could have let drop when they knew only homefield advantage in a 5-game series was on the line under the old single-wildcard format. They’ve won because guys like catcher Yadier Molina have contested a play at the plate against the Cubs—hurting his thumb in doing so—to secure wins over divisional opponents. The Pirates will come up short due to no lack of effort, as will the Cubs, who have been led on a crazy mission to try to capture the pennant by starting pitcher Jake Arrieta and his 4 earned runs in the last 61 days.
If that isn’t enough for you, look at the race for the second AL wildcard, currently being contested between the West’s leading Texas Rangers, the Houston Astros (who led that division for most of the season), the Anaheim Angels and Minnesota Twins—currently trailing in the clubhouse at a whopping 1.5 games back as of Tuesday night. The Rangers are desperately trying to hold off the Astros now after coming back from 9 down in the divisional race on July 20. The Astros are doing anything they can to avoid a one-gamer with the wild card-leading Yankees in New York or a nightmare scenario 4-way tie that would have them playing in Phoenix Sunday to end the regular season, Texas on Monday, Houston on Tuesday, New York on Wednesday and Toronto or Kansas City on Thursday. Potentially three time zones and two countries in five straight days. Fuck that.
The Angels are doing their best to take a match to all of this like the little sadist on your childhood block. They’re playing .770 baseball over the past two weeks and Mike Trout is doing one helluva Vince Carter impression leaping over walls in a bid to win the division or even just win that last playoff spot. The Twins would like to crash the party just to splatter some blood on the wall. The Rangers are playing the worst ball of the bunch at .600. It’s been terrific to watch and has to be absolutely exhausting to participate in.
The quest to get out of the wildcard—or to win the second spot; not an option until four seasons ago—is producing a batshit crazy end of the MLB season that’s more baseball heaven than any cornfield in Iowa or sun-soaked spring training facility. I hope this violent, absurd car-chase of a fortnight never ends.