By: Joey Schneider, KCOU Sports
Flashback to 2007, when the Colorado Rockies went on a September surge in which they won 14 of their last 15 regular season games. The mountainmen chased an experienced San Diego Padres team, tied their record of 89-73 in the regular season’s final day and forced a tiebreaker for sole possession of the ‘only’ NL wild card spot the next day.
A postseason entry was at stake for the division rivals, as the winner earned an division series date with the National League’s best team, while the loser came home empty-handed. In what proved to be a see-saw battle, the foes brought the one-game playoff to 13 innings, that ended with Matt Holliday’s mad dash home to secure a 9-8 walk-off victory for the ‘rolling’ Rockies.
After noticing the effort, pride and competition from this winner-take-all game, it was only five years later until this same structure was permanently replicated into MLB postseason. Commissioner Bud Selig approved of the change in mid-2011 with the intentions of driving more competition out of non-division leaders.
Instead, the Wild Card hype has lead to a chaotic and unfair portrayal of baseball teams today, in which the fifth best team in each league can potentially squeak by a top-tier non-division leader if the right triggers are pulled. Just ask the Atlanta Braves, Texas Rangers or Cleveland Indians, who have all lost winner-take-all Wild Card games with home-field advantage since the change was enforced in 2012.
The main dilemma with adding two Wild Card games to the postseason agenda is that teams get caught up in worrying about where they rank in the hierarchy of their league. However, this young playoff setup leads to a subset of internal issues that stress out competitors, when teams should realistically be directing their attitudes toward the prize that matters most; a world championship.
Generally speaking, the Wild Card game is not consistently indicative of which underdog deserves a chance at postseason play. The only beneficiary of this setup to make it out of a division series was the 2012 St. Louis Cardinals, who were on the cusp of losing the NLDS until a last-minute comeback in Washington.
On another note, if the 2007 Rockies played for the second wild card rather than fighting for sole possession of one seed, the team’s stretch run could have differed drastically. This factor could have possibly led to a domino effect in which the NL West rivals could have rested regulars and San Diego hypothetically could have locked up home field advantage.
Additionally, the winner-take-all format leads to pressured expectations from not only the players and managers, but all witnesses of the particular game. To explain this theory, let’s look back at the infamous infield fly situation of 2012.
Cardinals shortstop Pete Kozma appeared to track down a long fly ball with two Atlanta runners threatening to rally from a 6-3 deficit, but dropped the ball after he believed to called off from left fielder Matt Holliday. Braves fans roared in excitement, as a comeback seemed inevitable, until the third base umpire clarified the ruling as an infield fly just seconds after the drama.
As bad as a break this proved for the Braves, it was even more disappointing that the umpired was pressured to signal the ruling until the very last second of the play. Not only did this cause confusion for both opponents, but it provoked a revolt in which fans halted play by throwing debris onto the field and downgraded spirits quickly, ultimately leading St. Louis to an easy and unfair 6-3 road victory.
Above all, this system involves more strategizing prior to the game and limits the elements of randomness and surprise in baseball. While giving an ace extra rest to prepare for a winner-take-all game is smart, managers often abuse this privilege by starting Triple-A like lineups in the final days, if they had already obtained one of two spots.
For instance, if MLB still used the previous Wild Card system today, the final regular season games could’ve meant more between the NL’s current Wild Card representatives. Giants’ ace Madison Bumgarner would’ve started Sunday in order to match the Pirates record and extend San Francisco’s season, while Pittsburgh backstop Russell Martin may have grinded out an injury to isolate the top Wild Card seed against a Reds team he enjoys hitting against. This factor was non-existent for the 2007 Rockies, but it ultimately brought more emotion and surprise behind their extra-innings comeback.
This year’s two Wild Card games will be harder to predict than ever, partly due to the aforementioned problems with the unfamiliar setup. The Oakland A’s will look to pitch their way out of September struggles against a hungry Kansas City Royals squad tonight, while the Pittsburgh Pirates can only hope that their streaky team defeats a postseason-enriched San Francisco Giants roster tomorrow.
The one positive that derives from both Wild Card games is that baseball fans get to watch America’s pastime carry longer into October. Even if the successors of this new format don’t make a deep playoff run, it’s a one-of-a-kind experience to compete beyond game 162.