A recent trip to the Midwest has Kyle Magin reeling from the pitiable probability of an early playoff exit for Pittsburgh or Chicago.
By Kyle Magin
If form holds in the National League Central, baseball is about to give you a tantalizing look at what will never be this week because it’s a sport built upon the corpses of its insufficiently-gestated young and is also a real sonofabitch.
The Cubs take their weirdo manager, Ruthian catcher and personification of this thing >> ¯_(ツ)_/¯ of a bullpen on the road this week for four in Pittsburgh before a trio of games in Wrigley against the Cardinals. The Pirates are 2.5 games behind the Cardinals in the division and the Cubs are 6.5 back. All three would be in the playoffs if the season ended today, as the Cubs hold onto the second wildcard position by 7.5 games over the San Francisco Giants, who are appearing in the rearview less like an I-wasn’t-interested-but-now-I-maybe-am Usain Bolt and more like a Huh-I-wonder-if-anyone-knows-I’m-still-here late-career Jeremy Wariner.
Conceivably, an extreme scenario could find us here on Sunday with the whole division’s order reversed. On the other side, the Pirates and Cards would stay in their pitched battle and the Cubs could be fending off that Giants attack with an uncomfortably thin barrier. Most likely, their positions will stay static and baseball will command the demolition of dreams in either Pittsburgh or Chicago as the two face off at PNC in a one-game throwdown for the right to play St. Louis in the DS round.
That will be a tragedy for the sport–both cities should absolutely get the chance to wave towels, hand-wring over potential pitching matchups and stay up late on school nights–but we’re in baseball’s bloodless season and somebody’s going to have to fall.
Pittsburghers deserve to see what their revelation of a Korean import in shortstop Jung-Ho Kang (pronounced Gung-Ho because Hell Yes) can do when he’s pushed further into a season than he ever went in the Far East. All of baseball deserves to see as much of Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutcheon as humanly possible right now, before age and baseball’s offense-first priorities morph him into a less-mobile slugger a la Carlos Beltran in his Mets iteration as opposed to his brilliant early work in Kansas City.
Chicagoans, it goes without saying, need a playoff series in the worst way. They need an extended stretch of forgetting Jay Cutler, Derrick Rose’s knee and Patrick Kane’s frat boy act. Every adorable five year old in an oversized blue hat and a hope for next season in that town–whether they’re actually five or just spiritually so–needs to wake up and check the highlights and cut pictures of Kris Bryant out of the Tribune to put up on the wall.
Baseball–a rotten ogre–will steal that feeling from one of them (or in a much better world, St. Louis!) It’ll come in with its one-game wildcard playoff–a relatively new facet of the game, we must remember, that finds both of these teams in the postseason, instead of just one or the other–and tell one set of hopes and dreams to hit the bricks.
It’ll be mean and cruel and will amp up the anxiety to an almost unbearable level for one day. It’ll likely be more exciting than any NFL game for the next two months, and any baseball game since this time last year. If there’s one thing that makes this sport special it’s the almost Sisyphean task of winning a World Series. For Chicago and Pittsburgh, just to get a shot against a division winner for a chance at rolling that rock a few more feet up the hill means somebody’s going home in one night.
It’s that way because it has to be–another playoff series would add too much length to a season a lot of America is already sick of anyway. But it sucks, because baseball crushes rock to find its diamond, and that’s why you love it.