The MLB Playoffs kick off tonight, with the Bryce Harper-less Washington Nationals have shrugged their shoulders about losing their one time wunderkind and made the playoffs anyway. Opposing them are the Milwaukee Brewers, who many might forget actually won the NL Central last year and this year roared back to take the wild card spot after not quite having enough gas to defend their NL Central title. They were left for dead after losing their MVP candidate Christian Yelich, but instead went on a run. They finished the season losing the last 3, but before that had gone 18-2.
On Wednesday night, the Oakland Athletics host the Tampa Bay Rays, two teams that define the “Moneyball” approach of low payrolls and high value from those payrolls. The Rays have the lowest in the league, at just $53M while the robust A’s are 23rd in the league over $103M. On paper you might say it is a mismatch, except the winner of this round has to face the Astros (8th in MLB, $165+M) before facing the winner of the Yankees (2nd, $205M) and Twins (18th, $115M).
Many deride this one game wild card playoff since it debuted in 2012. Before that, the one wild card simply got into the playoffs against the top seeded team, and it had been that way since 1995. However, I am still a big fan of it. Let me tell you why, as long as some references to some great moments in recent wild card history.
To start with, the adage about winning your division still provides some sorely needed drama in the final weeks of the regular season. The Brewers, as mentioned above, pushed as hard as they could to not only make the Wild Card, but gain that security of at least a 5 game series to start. They boast a peculiar strength in a short series however, with their starting pitchers averaging less than 5 innings in a game anyway. Other teams might be more tempted to run their starters as long as possible, thinking ahead to the Division Series rather than burn another starter or key reliever.
Secondly, being one game, sometimes managers are forced to maneuver to keep their best players in the game. In the National League of course this can present unique challenges. I loved the moment in the 2017 NL WC game when Archie Bradley stood in to hit for the Dbacks against the Rockies – and tripled!
Next – a major aspect of the wild card game is getting the crowd completely into a game the entire time. One Hundred and Sixty Two Games? Sure, you can zone out for a few innings perfecting that Instagram story and not miss much. A one game playoff? Don’t count on it. In 2013, the Pirates returned to the playoffs for the first time since Sid Bream beat Barry Bonds throw home, and the crowd was AMPED. So much, in fact, that their sound and fury actually caused Johnny Cueto to drop the ball on the mound. On the next pitch, Russell Martin went yard.
Baseball is called by some a “static game” in that unlike the constant movement of a basketball or soccer game, you have a pitch that is hit or not. The fielders are mostly stationary in between when the ball is hit and not, and all eyes are on the baseball. So the buildup can be huge, and develops pitch by pitch.
In the 2017 Wild Card game between the Yankees and Twins, the Twins got on the board first with 3 runs and Yankee Stadium got really quiet. Then the home team started to get a runner on base here and there, and Didi Gregorius brought it all back home:
Other times with just one game to go on, teams are remembered for what they didn’t do…in the 2003 ALCS it was Grady Little leaving Pedro Martinez in too long, in 2015 it was leaving Matt Harvey in, and in 2016 it was Zack Britton being left out in the bullpen against the Blue Jays. Especially when the alternative was Ubaldo Jimenez who had struggled mightily through the year. Naturally, it went terribly and the Orioles lost the game. In 2018 and 2019 they have been among the worst teams in baseball.
In the end, you want to see good, quality baseball. Where two teams just compete at the highest level until one team wins and one team loses. For my money, the best game like that is still the 2014 A’s-Royals wild card game. The A’s rarely go “all in” on a season – but they did in 2014. They had traded for Jon Lester, Jeff Samardzija and others. They had Josh Donaldson still, along with Josh Reddick, Jed Lowrie, and Brandon Moss in his prime. These were the James Shields led Royals along with Hosmer, Salvy, and others who would become their 2015 Championship team.
Lester had been acquired almost exclusively for his post season success, and when the A’s scored 5 in the 6th it seemed like the end. Then, with 5 outs to go, the Royals got busy scoring runs. They tied it in the bottom of the 9th and the game went on. The A’s scored in the top of the 12th to take a one run lead once again to the bottom of the inning. The Royals once again refused to say die. Eric Hosmer tripled with one out, before he was brought in and with two outs, Salvador Perez brought him home.
What will we see this week? I don’t know, but in Oakland we’ll have two teams everyone likes, and in DC…we get to see Max Scherzer look for a signature moment of his own as the Nationals try and win their first post-season *series since 1981 when they were the Montreal Expos.
*you could debate if the Wild Card Game is a series, but either way they haven’t won one.